The Ferdy Sambo case has been an important test of Indonesia’s legal system.
Sambo, a former two-star general and, highly ironically, the head of the police force’s internal affairs department, was one of the country’s most senior officers when he was arrested and charged with the murder of his aide-de-camp, 27-year-old Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat, following a shooting on July 8 of last year.
What followed was the salacious “trial of the century” – all deliciously televised – which ended in Sambo being handed the death penalty after he was found guilty in February this year of shooting Hutabarat at Sambo’s home in Jakarta.
Now, the trial of the century has delivered one final twist, with Sambo’s death sentence commuted to life in prison on appeal, leading some to question whether justice has really been served in this case.
Even now, no one really knows what happened that chaotic day in Jakarta.
In Sambo’s telling, Hutabarat had sexually assaulted Sambo’s wife, Putri Candrawathi, and, when Sambo confronted him about the assault, Hutabarat fired several shots at Sambo and his security team including a young police brigadier named Richard Eliezer Pudihang Lumiu, who fired the fatal shots back at Hutabarat in self-defense.
While Sambo, Candrawathi and two others at the scene, Candrawathi’s assistant Kuat Ma’ruf and another police officer, Ricky Rizal Wibowo, stuck fast to this story in court, the prosecution painted a wholly different picture.
Hutabarat and Candrawathi had been involved in an extramarital affair, they claimed, and Sambo, blinded by jealousy, wounded pride and rage, had ordered Lumiu to shoot Hutabarat before standing over the dying man and firing additional shots into his body from Sambo’s own gun.
At the time of sentencing, Chief Justice Santoso neatly sidestepped the question of motive, which the Indonesian justice system does not require to be proven, while nevertheless handing Sambo the maximum penalty for premeditated murder (the other options being life in prison or a 20-year jail term).
Sambo’s co-accused also received custodial sentences, with Candrawathi sentenced to 20 years in prison and Ma’ruf and Wibowo sentenced to 15 and 13 years, respectively.
Lumiu, somewhat controversially, escaped with an 18-month term having become a “justice collaborator” and star witness for the prosecution, although he too steered clear of elaborating on the dynamics that had led to the murder most foul.
On the face of it at least, justice had been served and the fears of the public, many of whom had suspected that Sambo would be the beneficiary of police impunity, were assuaged.
Yet here we are.
Not only did the Supreme Court slash Sambo’s death sentence to a life term but it also cut Candrawathi’s sentence to just 10 years in prison. Mar’uf’s term was similarly pruned to 10 years and Wibowo’s shortened to eight years.
Predictable uproar online ensued after the decision was made public on Tuesday evening, with “Ferdy Sambo” quickly becoming a trending topic on Indonesian Twitter.
For now, the Supreme Court has yet to release its written reasons for the appeal decision, but it is not unfair for some to be skeptical.
For decades, Indonesia’s police force has operated with a high level of impunity and lack of scrutiny, with police accountability when using deadly force often absent. That said, Sambo’s sentence reduction sits within the authority of the court and is in line with the country’s soft push away from capital punishment.
According to Indonesia’s new Criminal Code, which will be phased in by 2026, those on death row will be granted a 10-year probation period, after which their sentences will be reduced to life in prison if they demonstrate remorse and good behavior. As such, the chances of Sambo ever facing a firing squad were slim at best, and the commutation of the death penalty is in line with the principles of criminal justice reform and the right to life.
Perhaps more questionable is the sentence reduction for Candrawathi who, despite not having fired a shot at Hutabarat, was considered instrumental in the murder plot and the catalyst for the fatal shooting.
Without access to the documents that will illuminate the Supreme Court’s decision-making, we cannot know the rationale for such a drastic reduction – although it is certainly unusual for an individual to receive such a large reprieve on appeal. On the contrary, it is common for sentences to be increased in Indonesia on appeal, with judges often taking a dim view of the court’s authority being questioned.
One also wonders why Candrawathi deserved to have her sentence cut in half while Ma’ruf and Wibowo only received a five-year reduction apiece, but this will again likely become clear once the appeal documents are filed and made available to the public.
Perhaps, with a lack of a clear motive still hanging in the air, the court decided that Candrawathi’s term was too drastic for someone who did not have a gun in their hand when Hutabarat was murdered, and who would perhaps have had little control over the fatal events that played out at her family’s home.
It is also often missed in the melee that Sambo, Candrawathi, Ma’ruf, and Wibowo all actually lost their respective appeals, having asked the Supreme Court to throw out the premeditated murder charges, something that the court rejected out of hand.
As a result, when parsing the legal nitty gritty of the case, the reductions point less to some kind of conspiracy theory and more towards a legal system that is just – for all that we just might not agree with it.