Rita Widyasari was named suspect by Indonesia’s antigraft body earlier this month.
She was alleged to accept a a 6 billion rupiah ($442,000) bribe from plantation businessman Hari Susanto Gun.
The head of Kutai Kartanegara district in East Kalimantan is often dubbed the “queen of coal” given the number of mining permits she has issued.
JAKARTA — A district chief from Indonesian Borneo has been named a corruption suspect over the issuance of an oil palm plantation permit, opening the door for law enforcers to unravel other cases related to natural resources in the coal-rich jurisdiction.
Rita Widyasari, the elected head of Kutai Kutanegara, a district in East Kalimatan province, allegedly accepted a 6 billion rupiah ($442,000) bribe from Hari Susanto Gun, CEO of oil palm grower PT Sawit Golden Prima, in 2010. The money was in exchange for a plantation permit.
Indonesia’s antigraft agency, known as the KPK, has instigated a massive effort to review the legality of thousands of licenses held by mining and, more recently, oil palm companies across the country. It has already revoked hundreds of mining permits. It is not yet clear whether Rita’s status as a suspect is directly connected to the initiative. Either way, the case against Rita over a permit she handed out seven years ago marks a departure from the agency’s usual approach to corruption over licensing: catching them in the act of taking a bribe, usually after tapping their phones.
Rita, whose second term in office is due to end in 2020, has announced plans to run for governor of East Kalimantan next year. Her father, Syaukani Hasan Rais, a former head of Kutai Kartanegara, was convicted of corruption in 2007.
Given the number of permits she has issued, local media have dubbed her the “queen of coal.”
Besides Rita, the KPK named as suspects Gun and Khairudin, an alleged middleman in the case.
KPK commissioner Basaria Pandjaitan said Khairudin, who is a commissioner at local newspaper company PT Media Bangun Bersama (MBB), led a group of middlemen called Team 11 that helped Rita in some projects.
According to Basaria, the KPK plans to use the case as a gateway to uncover other corruption cases in the region, with the antigraft body suspecting Rita and Khairudin of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from other projects.
KPK investigators raided local government offices following the naming of Rita as a suspect. They also seized four cars allegedly belonging to Rita but purchased under other people’s names.
The agency plans to examine Rita’s personal assets, which grew almost tenfold from 2011, the year after she became district chief, to 2015, when she ran for re-election. That year, she declared total assets of 236.7 billion rupiah, Basaria said.
Rita has denied her role in the case, saying that the 6 billion rupiah that she received from Gun was not a bribe but a payment for gold she sold him.
According to government data, there are 1,430 mining permit holders in East Kalimantan province — 820 companies holding exploration permits, with the rest given permission to operate. Altogether, these companies hold concessions covering 5.13 million hectares (12.7 million acres), just over 40 percent of the province’s total land area.
Meanwhile, there are 625 mining permit holders in Kutai Kartanegara, making it the district with the largest number of mining permits in the province.
Many coal companies have broken the law with impunity, failing to fill in their abandoned mining pits as required by law. These holes have claimed the lives of at least 27 people, mostly children. In May, Mongabay published an investigation into the identities of these companies’ owners, undertaken in partnership with Tempo magazine, Indonesia’s largest newsweekly.
Rita herself is connected to coal miner PT Sinar Kumala Naga, suspected to have left behind 15 pits.
Her mother, Dayang Kartini, is listed as the company’s largest shareholder. Her sister, Silvi Agustinia, is also listed as a commissioner, as is Golkar Party politician Azis Syamsuddin. Rita chairs the East Kalimantan chapter of Golkar.
Maryati Abdullah, national coordinator of mining sector oversight at Publish What You Pay Indonesia, an NGO, urged the KPK to use Rita’s case as a stepping stone to probe the district’s mining sector.
“There’s a need to investigate when and how mining permits are obtained [in the district]. Was there any conflict of interest? Because in the past, the district head had an authority to issue mining permits,” she said in an interview. “How come a district head could issue a mining permit for herself? It’s not normal.”
Banner image: Coal mined in East Kalimantan being transported by river barge. More than 237 million tons of coal were mined in East Kalimantan in 2015. Photo by Tommy Apriando for Mongabay-Indonesia.