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Indonesian court throws out lawsuit against green expert’s testimony

  • A court in Indonesia has thrown out a lawsuit against an environmental expert whose testimony was instrumental in the conviction of a governor over a mining scandal.
  • The governor, Nur Alam, had sued Basuki Wasis, an environmental degradation expert, over his assessment of the damage caused by illegal mining resulting from his improper issuance of mining licenses.
  • It’s the second lawsuit Basuki has faced and overcome in connection with his role as a government witness in environmental cases. Fellow expert Bambang Hero Saharjo faces a near-identical lawsuit, which is also widely expected to fall flat.
  • The judges in Basuki’s case emphasized the need to protect the testimonies of expert witnesses, to allow them to do their job without fear of a legal backlash.

JAKARTA — An Indonesian court has thrown out a lawsuit against an environmental expert whose testimony led to the conviction of a governor in a mining scandal.

Basuki Wasis, an expert on environmental degradation from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), had testified in February in the trial of Nur Alam, the governor of Southeast Sulawesi province, who was charged with abuse of power in the issuance of mining licenses.

Basuki, who has testified in more than 200 cases involving environmental crimes such as forest fires and pollution, told the court that the illegal mining activities by one of the companies that received a permit from Alam had led to deforestation and resulted in 2.7 trillion rupiah ($186 million) in combined ecological losses, environmental economic losses, and the cost of repairing the damage.
As the case proceeded, however, Alam sued Basuki, questioning the accuracy of his calculations and his credibility. Alam was subsequently convicted, sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to pay fines and damages totaling 3.7 billion rupiah ($268,000).

A cartoon of Basuki Wasis created for an online petition in support of the environmental expert. Image courtesy of Change.org.

On Dec. 13, judges at the Cibinong District Court in West Java province found in favor of Basuki in the lawsuit. They said his testimony as a witness for the prosecution in Alam’s trial could not be subjected to criminal or civil charges.

The lawsuit against Basuki was one of several litigation efforts against Indonesian environmental experts that have sparked concern among observers and activists alike, who fear a silencing effect that will allow environmental crimes to go unpunished.

The judges in Basuki’s case also addressed this issue, saying existing legal protections needed to be enforced to allow expert witnesses to continue doing their job without fear of litigation.

In a statement issued after the ruling, Basuki expressed his gratitude to everyone who had supported him throughout the legal process.

“I’m thankful that this lawsuit has been turned down by the judges. I think experts should start feeling undaunted, because as long as we are in the right, as long as we are fighting for the environment, the people and the country, it is our responsibility to do,” he said.
“Do not be afraid, just as the judges said just now.”

Basuki Wasis, third from left, celebrates with some of his supporters in court after the lawsuit against him was thrown out. Image courtesy of Change.org.

A similar ruling is widely expected in a near-identical lawsuit filed by a palm oil company, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa (JJP), against prominent forestry expert Bambang Hero Saharjo, also from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture.

Bambang testified in 2015 in a case in which JJP faced criminal negligence charges over fires in its concession in Sumatra. A key part of his testimony was his financial assessment of the environmental damage caused by the fires. His testimony was seen as instrumental in the guilty verdict that followed.

The court also fined the company 120 billion rupiah ($8.26 million) and ordered it to pay for the restoration of 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) of burned plantation, an estimated cost of 371 billion rupiah ($25.6 million).

The company, in apparent retaliation, has sued Bambang and is seeking a total of 510 billion rupiah ($35.2 million) in damages. JJP claims the evidence presented by Bambang was inadmissible because it used both the IPB logo and the letterhead of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. (The ministry, which brought the lawsuit against JJP, had commissioned Bambang to carry out the environmental damage assessment.)

JJP earlier this year also sued Basuki for his testimony in the same trial. In his case, the company said his testimony was inadmissible because of a typo in one of the documents he had presented as evidence. JJP sought 610 billion rupiah ($42.1 million) in damages from Basuki, before dropping its demands upon mediation.

Bambang Hero Saharjo, left, faces a near-identical lawsuit for testifying against a palm oil company. The same company also sued Basuki Wasis, before dropping the lawsuit. Image by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

These cases have fueled calls for Indonesia to adopt robust regulations against this kind of litigation. Known as SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, this type of litigation is defined as being brought with the aim of censoring, intimidating or silencing critics speaking out against those in power or on issues of public interest.

An article in the 2009 Environmental Protection and Management Law states that no criminal charges may be brought against anyone for campaigning for their right to a clean environment. But the scope of the article is narrow, as it protects only against lawsuits brought in response to formal complaints filed by petitioners.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry is now preparing guidelines that will interpret the article more broadly to apply to environmental activism and prevent frivolous cases from going to court. Once the guidelines are in place, the ministry says, it hopes to prevent cases like Basuki’s from occurring again.

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