Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – A court in Indonesia's Riau province, the country's palm oil heartland, has sentenced a high-ranking official to 12 years in prison for taking bribes in exchange for issuing or renewing plantation permits.
The court in Pekanbaru, the provincial capital, found on Aug. 31 that Muhammad Syahrir, the former head of the Riau land agency, was guilty of abusing his authority and taking bribes from a number of companies in recent years.
The latest bribery case revolved around palm oil company PT Adimulia Agrolestari, which paid Syahrir the equivalent of $82,000 to renew the firm's right-to-cultivate permit, known as an HGU. The permit was set to expire in 2024.
In all, Syahrir was found to have taken bribes, solicited and unsolicited, amounting to 21.13 billion rupiah ($1.38 million) over the course of five years from several palm oil and mining companies in Riau and before that at the North Maluku provincial land office. The Pekanbaru court sentenced Syahrir to 12 years in prison and fined him the equivalent of $1.5 million. Failure to pay could see him face an additional three and a half years in prison.
Syahrir's legal team didn't immediately say whether they would appeal the sentence, which is slightly harsher than the 11.5 years sought by prosecutors.
Raynaldo Sembiring, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said Syahrir's crimes are only "the tip of the iceberg," as bribery is widely perceived as part of the cost of doing business in Indonesia.
The case has prompted calls for a wider investigation into corruption between business players and the local officials tasked with policing their operations.
Jeffri Sianturi, coordinator of Riau-based nonprofit Senarai, who has been monitoring the trial, said the land ministry, which oversees the provincial agencies like the ones that Syahrir headed in Riau and North Maluku, should use the case as a catalyst for a sweeping evaluation of the ministry and land agencies across the country.
It can start by looking at the 38 companies and three individuals who apply for HGU permits at the Riau land agency during Syahrir's tenure there, he added.
"There has to be a sweeping evaluation because the potential for corruption is rife," Jeffri said. "The country's antigraft agency, the KPK, has to charge the companies who gave [bribes] to get their permits issued or renewed in Riau and North Maluku."