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Then, in 2002, the country established the Corruption Eradication Commission, which goes by the local acronym, KPK. The new body would run parallel to the police and the attorney general’s office, and was entrusted with the power to investigate and prosecute any public official for any type of corruption.
While much of its employees’ work involves poring over dry balance sheets, the KPK has in-your-face swag. It is housed in its own building, painted boldly in the colors of the nation’s flag: red as blood, white as truth. Inside, the vibe is that of a tech start-up, and the organization’s record seems as sterling as that of a Silicon Valley unicorn—a conviction rate of nearly 100 percent, and over 1,000 corrupt public officials sentenced.
The job of bringing ne’er-do-wells to trial falls to people such as Ferdian Nugroho, a soft-spoken prosecutor from a backwater town in Central Java, who got bored trying two-bit hoodlums and longed for a greater challenge. In a bigger pond he was able to catch bigger fish: Several years after joining the KPK, he netted a shark named Fuad Amin Imron, the regent (an office midway between mayor and governor) of a district on the island of Madura, who’d gobbled up more than $42 million.
“Cash was stuffed everywhere,” Nugroho told me. “Suitcase after suitcase of it. In the cupboard, under the bed.” But that was just a fraction of the take. All those sacks of bills added up to $200,000, but further investigation uncovered $28 million tied up in real estate and another $14 million in laundered bank accounts. Fuad Amin was the grandson of one of the most revered Muslim scholars in the nation—his grandfather was the spiritual mentor of the founder of the world’s largest Islamic organization. “People respected him,” Nugroho said. “And also, they feared him.”
Throughout Indonesia, Madura has a reputation similar to that of Sicily: The people there are blunt, straightforward—and not averse to settling disputes with violence. One NGO worker who started poking around the regent’s business was shot in 2015. The would-be assassin happened to be from the same political party as the regent, and received a sentence of only six months in prison, according to Nugroho.
For a decade, everyone in Fuad Amin’s district knew what he was up to, and nobody said a word to the central authorities. Only after the regent retired (bestowing his office, naturally, to his son), did someone finally find the courage to phone the KPK hotline. Fuad Amin was sentenced in 2017 to 13 years in prison, and his assets were seized.
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Despite the successes, anti-corruption work remains dangerous. On a spring day in 2017, the KPK investigator Novel Baswedan was walking home from a mosque when a thug on a motorbike tossed acid in his face. Baswedan survived, but was blinded in one eye. Outside KPK headquarters, a billboard shows a photo of his maimed face and counts the days, hours, minutes, and seconds that have gone by without his attacker being brought to justice. The “days” digits recently blinked to 780. The message is clear: The KPK may not be able to guarantee its staff’s safety, but it won’t let their sacrifices be ignored.