• World
  • indonesia

‘I Don’t Want to Be Sad’: Indonesia’s Top Graft Buster Talks to TIME From His Hospital Bed

10 minute read

On April 11 Novel Baswedan, Indonesia’s leading corruption investigator, was in the middle of a sweeping embezzlement case that implicated leading members of Indonesia’s parliament. He was feeling optimistic as he walked home from morning prayers at his local North Jakarta mosque; the probe was finally picking up. Just the day before, the speaker of Indonesia’s lower house Setya Novanto — once described by Donald Trump as “a great man” — was formally barred from leaving the country for six months after being linked to the case Novel was investigating (although whether it was because he is a witness or a suspect has not been disclosed).

“There is so much corruption to struggle against,” Novel, 39, told TIME.

But as he was walking home from the mosque, someone appeared behind him and flung a vial of hydrochloric acid into his face. “It happened so fast,” he said. For the first two seconds, Novel hoped it might just be water. Then he felt the burning — in his nostrils and his eyes. “It was like my skin was on fire,” he said. And suddenly he felt a familiar, wearying sensation: Someone assaulted me. Novel ran back to mosque, calling out for help. Fellow worshippers washed out his face for five minutes from a basin where worshippers purify themselves before prayer.

Novel was quickly taken to a general Jakarta hospital, before being transferred to one that specializes in eye problems. The damage to his corneas was severe. He was soon flown to a hospital in Singapore, to see if anything could be done. A complicated operation that involved using human placenta to replace his damaged eye tissue ensued. It remains unclear if his eyes will make a full recovery.

When TIME interviewed Novel from his hospital bed in Singapore on June 10 — in the first interview he has given since the attack — his eyes were still healing, and protective goggles were taped to his face. He sat propped up on his bed, eyes open but vision blurry, contemplating who may have done this to him. This is, by his count, the sixth time he has been assaulted for his work; in 2011 a car veered into him while he was riding a motorcycle home (he thought it was an accident until the same thing happened a week later).

He expressed wonder that the police have yet to find the culprits in the latest attack.

“I’ve actually received information that a police general — a high level police official — was involved. At first I said the information was false. But now that it’s been two months and the case hasn’t been resolved, I said [to the person who made the allegation] the feeling is that the information is correct,” Novel said.

In a statement to TIME Tito Karnavian, Indonesia’s national police chief, who has been in frequent communication with Novel, said police were working diligently to solve the case.

“Five people have been detained but after the police checked their alibis it was confirmed they weren’t there at the time of the attack so couldn’t have been the actors,” he wrote in a Whatsapp message to TIME. Tito said Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism force, Detachment 88 had been dispatched to assist the city’s police in solving the case, and they were looking into people who had cause to resent Novel. That’s a lot of people.

“Really it could be anyone who feels threatened by one of the investigations [Novel] leads,” wrote Simon Butt, a professor who specializes in Indonesian law at the University of Sydney Law School wrote in an email to TIME.

Novel has a reputation for being impossible to intimidate and appeared buoyant despite the condition of his eyes. “I don’t want to be sad,” he said, chuckling. “Whenever we decide to fight for the people, for the many, the result is we’ll be opposed, we’ll be attacked,” he said.

‘It comes with the territory’

Indonesia has failed to develop at the pace of neighbors like Thailand and Malaysia in large part due to its extraordinarily high levels of official corruption. Suharto, Indonesia’s right-wing dictator for 32 years, and his family members and cronies were accused of having siphoned off billions of dollars before he was overthrown in 1998. When Novel decided to join the police as an 18-year-old in 1995, towards the end of Suharto’s rule, many of his friends questioned the decision, asking him why he was willing to sign on to an organization seen as corrupt. “I’m going to improve its image,” Novel recalls telling them. “If I can’t, I’ll resign.”

His timing appeared propitious. He graduated from police academy in 1998, the same year Indonesia’s graft-fueled economy crashed, and popular demonstrations forced Suharto to step down. Suddenly Reformasi — a popular movement to wipe clean Indonesia’s dictatorial legacy was set in motion. The goal was to establish an open democracy, with a civil-society designed to serve the people.

Novel’s first assignment after graduation was to the heavily-forested province of Bengkulu, South Sumatra. There, logging companies allegedly cut deals with officials for access to areas supposedly reserved for use by locals, who relied on the forests to hunt game and plant fruit and nut trees. Deforestation not only deprived locals of these resources but also contributed to drought, drying up the rivers on which rural communities depended for trade and communication.

In his six years at Bengkulu, the young Novel had some successful graft busts, but it wasn’t until he left the province that he really began to make a name for himself.

Reformasi had failed to clean up Indonesia’s bureaucracy, which was rife with corruption during Suharto’s three-decades rule. To try to right things, in 2002 — four years after Suharto’s fall — Indonesia’s parliament created the Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian abbreviation KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi). This elite team of investigators was empowered to wiretap legislators and investigate and prosecute cases of public sector corruption. Novel was invited to join them in 2007.

He quickly gained renown as an investigator, racking up an impressive string of victories. In one well-known case in 2012, he investigated Amran Batalipu, a local regent in central Sulawesi who was convicted of taking massive bribes from a palm oil company in exchange for granting the company permission to destroy 11,000 acres of local rainforest. Two years later, Novel investigated Akil Mochtar, the chief justice of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court, who was caught red handed in a sting operation accepting bribes to rule on contested elections. These cases — along with numerous others — turned Novel into a hero of Indonesia’s fight against corruption. They also made him, and the KPK itself, an even greater object of resentment for factions of Indonesia’s political elite, who appeared to have little interest in reform. The KPK went “gone from strength to strength, breaking very big cases. But in doing so it has stepped on the toes of very powerful politicians,” Prof. Butt said.

When president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo — a progressive outsider who campaigned on an anti-graft ticket — was elected president in 2014, he pledged to stand up for the KPK. But less than two months after he was sworn into office, he faced a major crisis when the KPK accused Budi Gunawan, his nominee for police chief and a close ally of many of Jokowi’s key political backers, of corruption. In revenge, the police charged numerous leading KPK officials, including Novel, with a variety of implausible crimes.

“The efforts to weaken the KPK, or take revenge against the KPK, were incessant,” Abraham Samad, the chair of the KPK at the time told TIME. “What we all faced — me, the vice-commissioner, Novel, other KPK officials, was criminalization.”

Instead of aggressively defending the KPK against the police as many of his supporters wanted, Jokowi formed a council made up of different members of civil society to help work out the differences between the two sides. Jokowi ultimately withdrew Budi’s nomination, but he also accepted the resignation of Abraham Samad along with KPK vice-chair Bambang Widjojanto, in keeping with a law that stated that any commissioners charged with crimes had to resign. Jokowi’s approval ratings plummeted: the KPK is the rare public institution Indonesians trust and Jokowi had allowed it to be ravaged by the police.

“The KPK is under continuous threat and it comes with the territory,” wrote Natalia Soebagjo, the chair of Transparency International Indonesia’s board, in an email to TIME.

The recent acid attack against Novel was merely the latest in a long line of attempts to weaken the KPK on the institution. New threats against the KPK abound. Parliament is currently deliberating on legislation that would dramatically weaken the KPK by, among other things, removing its ability to wiretap politicians at will. President Jokowi has not taken a clear public stand, with his spokesperson telling media in March that the president had not had a chance to speak formally with parliament about the matter. Activists have criticized the President for failing to firmly oppose the legislation.

“We have set a very high standard for the KPK as an institution and that standard has to be maintained. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for parliament and the latest attempt to curb the powers of the KPK is consistent with the belief of many politicians that the KPK is too powerful,” Soebagjo said.


‘When it gets like this I’m scared’

In his hospital room in Singapore, Novel talks about how much he wants to get back to work. His mother, 62, enters the room, and sits on the bed beside her son, rubbing his arm. She confesses to being concerned for Novel even if he isn’t particularly concerned about himself.

“Yes, his path is right, confronting corruption is right,” she says. But, “When things like this happen, what is there to do? He has kids, what will their future be?” Her voice broke a little. “When it gets like this I’m scared. He comes home so late at night, sometimes three days for a time he won’t come home.”

Novel says the embezzlement case he has been working on may end up implicating dozens of members of parliament. But his thoughts also turn to justice for those responsible for the attack against him. He says he knows President Jokowi ordered the police to prioritize the case, but he says he doesn’t know if the President has evaluated what it might mean that two months later there are still no suspects.

“If there’s someone who works in government fighting corruption who is attacked numerous times and none of the cases are resolved, it’s a problem for the country,” he says. Then he adds: “After me, who will be next?”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com