Former Indonesian Police Inspector General Ferdy Sambo (2L) after his hearing at the headquarters of the Indonesian National Police (Polri) on 26 August 2022. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘Sambo Case’: Public Trust in the Indonesian Police at Stake

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The convoluted case involving a former police general’s alleged murder of his aide threatens to up-end the Indonesian public’s trust in their law enforcement agencies.

The high-profile murder case involving former Indonesian Police Inspector General Ferdy Sambo has created public controversy which threatens to overturn Indonesians’ once stellar trust in the National Police (Polri). If Polri fail to meet public demand to investigate the case transparently and conclusively, lasting damage to the country’s foremost law enforcement institution’s reputation could be done.

Late last year, Polri became the law enforcement agency that the Indonesian public trusted the most. Now, however, the police face their toughest challenge after being embroiled in a firestorm of controversy involving one of its most notorious high-ranking officers. National television’s 24/7 coverage and heated social media chatter have been buzzing nonstop since August 2022. Ferdy Sambo, who held the post of Head of the Professional and Security Division, became the prime suspect in the case of premeditated murder against his personal aide, Brigadier Yosua, on 8 July 2022.

Since the beginning of the investigation, questions have been raised about the many irregularities. The police made a formal report only three days after the incident, on 11 July 2022. The closed-circuit television feed from the incident scene was initially reported to be damaged and the murder victim’s family was not allowed to open his coffin. Police investigators initially parroted Sambo’s lie, that Yosua was involved in a shootout with another Sambo aide who caught Yosua threatening and sexually assaulting Sambo’s wife, Putri Candrawathi. The public were skeptical of this story, especially disbelieving the claim that a subordinate would behave in such a way to his superior’s wife. Sambo later admitted making this claim up.

The public uproar which ensued was catalysed in part by how the deceased’s family’s lawyer incessantly stoked their sense of justice in the national media. This finally impelled President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to intervene, directly ordering the Police six times to re-investigate the case. Jokowi is aware that the case, if mishandled, can dent his popularity. This would be especially so if Polri were seen as covering up for Sambo. The police are responsible to the president as the head of state. 

The combined pressure from the president and the public finally forced the national police chief to personally take over the handling of the case, transferring investigative control from the Greater Jakarta police branch to Polri headquarters. The police chief also granted the request of Yosua’s family to conduct a second autopsy on his body. The Police Chief finally named Sambo as a suspect on 9 August 2022, on charges of ordering another aide to execute Yosua for allegedly harassing his wife.

In a mid-August 2022 national survey, the Indonesian Political Indicator (Indikator) found that 55 per cent of respondents were aware of or following closely the Sambo drama. The latest survey conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) found that some 77 per cent of respondents followed the case. Indikator’s survey found that 92 per cent of respondents following this case agreed with the President’s encouragement of the police to investigate the case transparently.

The court must be able to openly hear the case to reveal the real motive for Yosua’s murder.

Prior to the Sambo case, public trust in Polri had been steadily increasing according to survey trends, reaching 80 per cent at its peak in November 2021. Polri consistently secured the top spot as the most trusted law enforcement agency compared to the public prosecutor’s office, the anti-corruption agency (KPK) and the courts. However, the latest survey saw this percentage collapse to 54.2 per cent. Polri now ranks the lowest among Indonesia’s law enforcement institutions.

Social media analysis at the end of July showed that positive sentiment towards Polri was only around 28 per cent before Sambo was named as the prime suspect. Indikator’s survey was carried out until August 17, when survey questions did not cover recent breakthroughs including Sambo’s dismissal from the police force by Polri’s Ethics Council and the naming of Sambo’s wife as a suspect. The police chief has aggressively pushed a counter-narrative of cleaning up Polri by cracking down on rampant illegal online gambling activities allegedly linked to Sambo’s turf. The latest survey by LSI found that public trust in the police has somewhat recovered.

Such intense public scrutiny over the case can be problematic because the public has seemingly decided that Sambo is guilty even before his trial. 55 per cent of respondents who follow the case feel the court should sentence Sambo to death, while 26 per cent demand a life sentence and only a small proportion feel that he deserves just 20 years in prison. If the court fails to match public sentiments with a suitable verdict, this could erode the court’s legitimacy.

The public suspect that Yosua was killed for reasons that Polri has not revealed. The police chief seems reluctant to reveal the motive for the murder, instead deftly handing the case to the prosecutor’s office for Sambo’s immediate prosecution. Indikator’s survey showed that 65.6 per cent of respondents want the police to immediately reveal Sambo’s motive for the murder; only 29.7 per cent agreed that this should be done only during court proceedings to protect the parties involved.

The court must be able to openly hear the case to reveal the real motive for Yosua’s murder. The public must be open-minded. The verdict will be an important one for Indonesia’s law enforcement institutions. Whether it is and is seen to be a fair one will impact not only the police, but also the prosecutor’s office and the courts.

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Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Insitute.