Indonesia: Batubara named suspect in COVID-19 corruption case

Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara accused of taking $1.2m in bribes from suppliers in COVID-19 aid project.

Indonesia’s social affairs minister turned himself in to anti-corruption authorities on Sunday to face charges of taking bribes related to the government’s COVID-19 aid distribution.

Juliari Batubara arrived at the Corruption Eradication Commission’s headquarters in the capital, Jakarta, hours after the anti-corruption commission called on him to surrender in a news conference just before midnight on Saturday.

Indonesia's minister arrested over pandemic aid corruption
Indonesia’s social affairs minister Juliari Batubara delivering a report in parliament in Jakarta. – Batubara was arrested on December 6, 2020 for allegedly taking 1.2 million USD in bribes linked to food aid for those hit by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Bambang Tri / AFP)

Batubara, who is also a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, made no comment.

The anti-corruption commission, known by its acronym KPK, said Batubara and two other officials are suspected of taking bribes in connection with the procurement of 5.9 trillion rupiah ($420m) worth of goods to be distributed as COVID-19 social assistance packages. The other two suspects in the case are private citizens.

KPK head Firli Bahuri said Batubara is accused of receiving at least 17 billion rupiah ($1.2m) from two supplier companies. They were asked to set aside $0.7 for each package of basic food distributed to the poor for the minister’s benefit.

Some of the suspects were arrested in a sting operation in Jakarta on Saturday, where KPK found the cash, Firli said.

Bahuri said Batubara could face up to life in prison if found guilty of stealing public money.

“We will not stop here. We will closely watch how the government’s social assistance is being procured and channelled during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bahuri said.

This picture taken on May 11, 2020 shows people receiving aid packages, amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak from the Indonesian Air Force at a distribution centre in Jakarta [File: Adek Berry/ AFP]

Batubara is the second cabinet member arrested for corruption in less than two weeks. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, who has since resigned, was also arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in connection with exports of lobster larvae and allegedly used the money for a luxury shopping spree in the United States.

The cases could further tarnish President Joko Widodo’s credibility in fighting corruption. Two other cabinet ministers, including Batubara’s predecessor, have been sentenced to prison terms in corruption cases.

Widodo campaigned in part on a pledge to run a clean government in a country that ranked 85th out of 180 nations in the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International.

Indonesia has reported nearly 570,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the largest in Southeast Asia and second in Asia only to India’s 9.6 million confirmed cases.

The country also recorded more than 17,000 deaths from the coronavirus, and has been adding 4,000-6,000 cases daily since last month.

AL JAZEERA

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