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Indonesia rocked by bribery scandal involving Covid aid

Minister arrested for allegedly receiving over US$1 million from contractors supplying food packages

JAKARTA: Indonesia's Social Affairs Minister was arrested yesterday for allegedly taking US$1.2 million (S$1.6 million) in bribes involving food meant for people hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Four others were also arrested by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Mr Juliari Batubara was named as a suspect after Indonesian anti-corruption agents seized suitcases, backpacks and envelopes stuffed with cash equivalent to US$1.2 million in a sting operation on Saturday.

"The money was stored in seven suitcases, three backpacks, and in envelopes," agency spokesman Ali Fikri said.

Suitcases of cash were put on display at the briefing.

Mr Juliari turned himself in yesterday at the anti-corruption agency's headquarters.

He was being questioned and will be taken into custody, said Mr Ali.

President Joko Widodo warned officials against misuse of public funds.

"That is the people's money... it is aid urgently needed to help during Covid-19 and for the national economic recovery," Mr Widodo said after Mr Juliari's arrest.

"That social assistance is really needed by the people and I will not protect those involved in corruption," he said in a video statement yesterday. "And we all believe the KPK works in a transparent, open, professional manner and the government will continue to consistently support efforts to prevent and eradicate corruption."

The Social Affairs Ministry will give the anti-graft agency full access to information needed for its investigation, said a senior ministry official.

Indonesia's economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, and the government has rolled out aid programmes such as food packages to help those in need. Mr Batubara has been accused of involvement in a bribery scheme linked to one such aid project.

Officials have alleged that he received more than US$1 million from two contractors that were appointed to supply basic food packages.

For each package, Mr Batubara would receive 10,000 rupiah (95 Singapore cents), officials alleged.

If found guilty, he could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of one billion rupiah.

He is the second minister under Mr Widodo's second-term administration to be implicated in a corruption case.

On Nov 25, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo was arrested for alleged corruption related to his ministry's decision to lift a ban on lobster larvae exports.

Mr Prabowo is a politician with the Gerindra party, a member of Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle ruling coalition.

Indonesia remains the worst-hit country in South-east Asia for Covid-19, with the number of confirmed cases at 575,796 as of yesterday and 17,740 deaths. - AFP, REUTERS, THE STRAITS TIMES

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