Case calls into question Indonesia’s timber legality scheme, as companies who purchased the illegal wood keep certification and escape prosecution
Rainforest in West Papua
Green activists are crying foul after an Indonesian police officer believed to have laundered nearly $128 million in proceeds from illegal fuel and timber smuggling was sentenced to just two years in prison for illegal logging – a verdict described as “shockingly lenient” and “unbelievable” given the extent of his alleged crimes.
A court in Sorong, West Papua convicted Adj. First Insp. Labora Sitorus of illegal logging on Monday, handing down a two-year prison sentence and slapping the low-ranking officer with a Rp 50 million ($4,300) fine.
Labora was also charged with fuel smuggling and money laundering and could have faced up to 20 years in prison and Rp 10 billion in fines had he been convicted on all three counts.
The judge’s decision to acquit Labora of these charges has raised eyebrows among legal experts in the country and drawn the attention of Indonesia’s Judicial Commission, which has promised to investigate.
“The two-year sentence handed down to Labora Sitorus by the Sorong District Court is an unbelievable verdict,” Judicial Commission chairman Suparman Marzuki told reporters in Jayapura on Wednesday, as quoted by the Jakarta Globe.
Suparman said he has been monitoring the case since it emerged and believes there are numerous weaknesses in the way it was handled, from the initial investigation to the charges and finally the disappointing verdict. “We have set up a team and it will work to investigate this.”
Labora was arrested in May last year after officials seized a boat registered in his name containing 400,000 liters of subsidized fuel, believed to have been smuggled into Papua to be resold at a marked up price.
Officials also seized 115 containers containing a total of 2,264 cubic meters of illegal merbau lumber at a port in Surabaya, East Java, which they traced to Labora. The rare tropical hardwood, estimated to be worth over $20 million, had been shipped from Sorong, a city on the western tip of Indonesian New Guinea where Labora was based, and was allegedly bound for export to China.
An investigation by Indonesia’s Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK) also revealed that Labora paid up to $1 million to various local, regional and national police officials between January and March last year and over Rp 1.5 trillion ($128 million) in suspicious transactions passed through his accounts over a five-year period.
After his arrest, Labora claimed to have been part of a larger network and said his downfall was orchestrated by others with business interests on his turf. Some 33 other police officers were allegedly involved in the suspicious transactions.
However, despite Labora’s claims and the evidence of money transfers from the PPATK investigation, the Attorney General’s Office determined that, based on the dossier submitted by police in September, there were no grounds to move forward with allegations of corruption.
“By neglecting to charge Sitorus with corruption, 33 police officers who allegedly received money from Sitorus were ignored,” the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said in a statement on Thursday.
Lowland rainforest in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com
Failing to convict Labora for money laundering may have also helped fellow police officers escape implication.
Dian Adriawan, a criminal law expert at Jakarta’s Trisakti University, told the Jakarta Globe earlier this week that had Labora been convicted of money laundering the court would have been obliged to publicly name the recipients of the laundered funds – a list that allegedly included high-ranking police officers.
“I believe there’s a cover-up,” Dian said, as quoted by the Jakarta Globe. “They’ve got the proof of the crime, so it’s simply bizarre that they haven’t traced where the proceeds went.”
EIA, which investigated illegal logging activities linked to Labora in 2009, echoed Dian’s concern over the way the case was handled.
“The shockingly lenient verdict handed down by a West Papua court to a police officer charged with illegal logging, fuel smuggling and money laundering is an appalling indictment of Indonesia’s utter failure to tackle corruption within the forestry sector,” EIA said in its statement, adding that it is “the strongest evidence of a cover-up” the group has witnessed in a long time.
Plan to appeal
Prosecutors, who had asked for a 15-year sentence, are also unhappy with the verdict and said they are planning to appeal the decision.
“A two-year sentence is far below the prosecutors’ request of 15 years,” E.S. Maruli Hutagalung, head of the Papua Prosecutors Office, said, as quoted by the Jakarta Globe. “Clearly it’s not commensurate with our demand, therefore we will file [an] appeal.”
EIA, meanwhile, claims this is not the first time Indonesia’s justice system has failed in a case involving police implicated in forestry crimes.
In 2005, Police Commissioner Marthen Renouw, who was also stationed in Indonesian New Guinea, was arrested for alleged involvement in an illegal logging syndicate.
Like in Labora’s case, the PPATK found evidence of suspicious transactions in his accounts and Marthen was charged under anti-corruption and anti-money laundering laws. However, after the case was brought to trial in November 2006, he was acquitted of all charges by a court in Jayapura.
Timber legality scheme shortfalls
Labora’s case also calls into question the effectiveness of Indonesia’s mandatory timber legality certification system (SVLK), which EIA said was “insufficiently robust to stop this illegal act from occurring in the first place.”
SVLK is meant to guarantee that all wood products in Indonesia use only traceable, legally harvested timber. The system was first implemented in 2009 and took on added significance last year after Indonesia signed a Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the European Union to end all trade in illegal timber.
Once the EU agreement is fully implemented, all SVLK-certified timber will be considered “legal” under EU law – meaning SVLK products will be able to be imported into the EU without further due diligence from companies to guarantee legality.
According to EIA, Labora’s timber company PT Rotua, which was responsible for the illegal logging and transport of the 115 containers of merbau wood, was eventually able to sell its illegal timber to exporting companies certified under SVLK.
None of the companies involved in buying or selling the illegal timber – including PT Rotua – have been investigated and prosecuted, EIA said.
“It is highly likely that all the illegal merbau sold on to traders by PT Rotua has been or will be exported abroad,” EIA said in its statement. “This is in direct violation of Indonesian law.”
The international environmental watchdog, together with its partner Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI), said it believes all of PT Rotua’s clients should have their SVLK certificates revoked or, at the very least, re-audited, now that Labora has been convicted of illegal logging.
“The deeply compromised case against Labora Sitorus and the subsequent failure of the judiciary is a major warning that, despite all of the commitments and agreements the Government has made to combat illegal logging and the associated illegal trade, Indonesia has still to prove its commitment to enforce the law against forest crime,” the group said.