Few Indonesians would be unaware of the story that has gripped the nation in recent months concerning the alleged poisoning by Jessica Wongso in a Jakarta café earlier this year.
For those outside Indonesia who are unaware of the story a brief overview is here. The bland language in the link fails to capture the blanket media coverage, fevered speculation on motives and widespread social media commentary (including a proliferation of memes) that now characterises public perceptions of the case.
Jessica Wongso is expected to face trial imminently and is, of course, innocent until proven guilty in an independent court process, but this is where the story takes another intriguing twist.
Jessica’s recent residency in Australia has been cited as the reason for Indonesian police contacting their Australian police counterparts, the AFP, seeking assistance in the case, although simply requesting forensic support (such as clarifying CCTV images) from the AFP is also highly likely.
The problem for the AFP is that, if Jessica Wongso is indeed found guilty, she potentially faces the death penalty. As a matter of policy the AFP declines to support assisting investigations where the death penalty is a possible outcome, an ethical position missing when Australian drug smugglers ended up executed in Indonesia just over a year ago.
Those executions were the consequence of widespread public support among the Indonesian people. In contrast, the AFP’s initial hesitancy to support the Jessica Wongso, at least publicly, was driven by widespread public criticism in Australia over the AFP’s contribution to those executions.
The decision allowing the AFP to assist was therefore escalated to the Australian Justice Minister. The Australian Justice Minister decided that the AFP were permitted to assist the Indonesian police because he claimed that the death penalty had been ruled out by the Indonesian Government, but declined to provide evidence of that guarantee.
Nevertheless the guarantee was later confirmed by an Indonesian Government minister, who also indicated that Indonesian police and prosecutors were in agreement that the death penalty was no longer an option.
At the same time conflicting rhetoric from the Indonesian judiciary grew more strident, insisting (correctly, at least in law) that whatever the Indonesian Government had promised was in no way binding on the court and that Jessica Wongso really could face the death penalty if found guilty.
At this point the initial tragedy, and any associated criminal trial, now risks being subsumed into two much broader contests with even higher stakes.
One of these contests is the international dimension. Should Jessica Wongso be found guilty and sentenced to death, Australia will have suffered a serious loss of face in trusting the word of the Indonesian government. Nor will the Indonesian Government enjoy being seen by the Indonesian public to have delivered the justice outcome specified by Australia.
As one eminent scholar on Indonesian law highlights, the guarantee of no death penalty is “a very strange agreement”. Why would the countries agree on an outcome they have no control over? That is politics, or possibly something even murkier, but the situation now leaves both governments potentially at the mercy of an Indonesian court which may, or may not, want to play politics to rescue or condemn the Australian and/or Indonesian governments from/to another serious fracture in their relationship.
The second contest is domestically within the Indonesian political and constitutional framework. Australian involvement in the Jessica Wongso case has, in one sense, merely thrown light on the ongoing struggle to free the Indonesian judiciary from interference by the Indonesian government. This contest is for nothing less than the soul of Indonesian democracy and, if you believe the spokesperson for the Central Jakarta District Court, it is a contest the Indonesian judiciary is committed to winning.
Seen in this light the omens for Jessica Wongso, if found guilty, are not good. The Indonesian judiciary has long been an institution under siege. How better to defend itself, and demonstrate strength and independence, than by using this case to humiliate their constitutional opponent, the Indonesian government, and prescribe the death penalty?
An assertive and independent judiciary is the new Indonesia. In the old Indonesia a way could be and would be found to ensure the judiciary delivers the outcome desired by those with power and influence, which in this case is Jessica Wongso avoiding the death penalty.
Jessica Wongso’s fate may yet depend on Indonesia’s residual anti-democratic tendencies, as once again the country again finds itself on the brink of a severe test of its constitutional resilience that, ideally, would now be beyond question.
Which of the new or old Indonesia is more likely to emerge from Jessica Wongso’s trial? I don’t know, but there may be a clue in asking the question again slightly differently; why would the two countries agree on an outcome unless they believe they have some control over the process?
Update: In late October 2016 Jessica was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Read into the decision what you will. One of the many news reports covering the story is here, which neatly encapsulates all of the concerns nearly everyone has over the quality of Indonesian justice. At the time of writing Jessica’s expected appeal is yet to be lodged.