29 August 2004

Journalistic error

From The Australian
A serving Indonesian president once told me Indonesia's biggest problem was its judiciary. The extent of that problem can be gleaned from the latest issue of the American journal Foreign Affairs.

Lex Rieffel, from the Brookings Institution, has written a determinedly up-beat, almost Panglossian assessment of Indonesia's democratic reform. Yet he comments: "Lacking a tradition of impartiality, commercial court decisions are still often delivered to the highest bidder."

The decision on Tuesday that the Indonesian terrorist Idris, who has confessed to an integral role in the Bali bombings -- which killed 202 people, 88 of them Australians -- could not be tried over Bali because the Constitutional Court had ruled retrospective anti-terrorist laws unconstitutional, was sickening for Australians.

Idris was instead jailed for his part in the Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta, but the prosecutor indicated, bizarrely, that he would not now be charged under normal criminal laws for his role in Bali.

This is a shocking development that throws into doubt the commitment of the Indonesian judicial and political systems to confronting Jemaah Islamiah terrorists.

Indonesia has had 5 presidents - Sukarno, Suharto, Habibie, Wahid and Megawati. The first two were outright dictators. Habibie was Suharto's vice-president and successor. It would be fun to know who Greg Sheridan's 'serving Indonesian president' is and it would be even better if we got some argument for this judicial threat to Indonesia apart from its presidential source.

The Sheridan piece moves on to denounce the Indonesian commercial court as corrupt and then mentions the constitutional court as though the second followed automatically from the first.

We then get an implied demand for the constitutional court to rule on what does or does not sicken Australians rather than the content of Indonesian law. It's a clever piece the first time you read it. The second time round you realise that most of his conclusions actually do not follow from his premises.

If you then turn to the allegedly Panglossian article Sheridan denounces, you find it a rather better analysis.

An independent judiciary (despite the concern of serving Indonesian presidents and Greg Sheridan, is a good thing. A smart pun calling the decision on retrospective laws 'Constitutional terror' is not. The Indonesian transition undoubtedly has major problems. There are continuing low-intensity conflicts in Aceh and West Papua. Corruption is rife. Human rights are not universally respected. Those problems will not be solved by corrupting the constitutional court.

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