Indonesia minister turns himself in for COVID-19 aid graft

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission formally detained the country’s social affairs minister after he surrendered to authorities Sunday to face charges of taking bribes related to the government’s COVID-19 aid distribution.

Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara turned himself in to the Corruption Eradication Commission hours after the commission’s chairman, Firli Bahuri, called on him to surrender at a news conference at around midnight Saturday.

Batubara, who is also a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, made no comment when arriving at the commission’s headquarters in the capital, Jakarta.

The anti-corruption commission, known by its acronym KPK, said Batubara is accused of receiving at least 17 billion rupiah ($1.2 million) from two supplier companies through his two subordinates, who were also named as suspects.

Bahuri said the suppliers were asked to set aside 70 cents for each package of basic food distributed to the poor for Batubara’s benefit.

His arrest came a day after KPK foiled an attempt to hand over seven suitcases and backpacks containing $1.3 million in cash to ministry officials.

“We will not stop here. We will closely watch how the government’s social assistance is being procured and channeled during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bahuri said.

He said Batubara could face up to life in prison if found guilty of stealing public money.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he has warned his Cabinet ministers against corruption.

“I repeatedly remind all state officials to be careful in using the state budget … that’s people’s money,” Widodo said in a televised address hours after the commission formally named Batubara as a suspect. “I will not protect those involved in corruption.”

Batubara is the second Cabinet member arrested for graft in less than two weeks. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, who has since resigned, was also arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in connection with exports of lobster larvae, and allegedly used the money for a luxury shopping spree in the United States.

The cases could further tarnish Widodo’s credibility in fighting corruption. Two other Cabinet ministers, including Batubara’s predecessor, have been sentenced to prison terms in corruption cases.

Widodo campaigned in part on a pledge to run a clean government in a country that ranked 85th out of 180 nations in the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International.

Indonesia has reported more than 570,000 cases of the coronavirus, the largest tally in Southeast Asia and second in Asia only to India’s 9.6 million cases.

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