Friday, 16 November 2007

Follow the money trail in illegal logging crimes: Indonesian activists

Follow the money trail in illegal logging crimes: Indonesian activists

Indonesian activists are urging authorities here to hunt down illegal loggers using anti money-laundering laws, following the shock acquittal of a high-profile suspect who has gone on the run.

Indonesia's abysmal record on fighting illegal logging -- no timber baron has ever received a substantial jail term here -- is under the spotlight ahead of the nation hosting a global climate change conference in December.

Adelin Lis, the head of logging company Keang Nam Development, fled from custody earlier this month after a court in North Sumatra found he was not guilty of illegal logging charges due to a lack of evidence.

Lis' company was cleared of accusations that it illegally razed prime forest in lush North Sumatra province, where some of Indonesia's last remaining rainforest tracts provide refuge to elephants and endangered tigers.

The logger had originally been nabbed when he tried to extend his passport at the Indonesian embassy in Beijing in 2006. He was described by the embassy as being an "environmental destroyer".

Allegations of court officials being bribed in his case have surfaced, although prosecutors have said they will appeal, while police have named Lis as a suspect in a linked money laundering case.

His lawyers have reportedly said they will present him to police -- who say they have issued an Interpol notice to recapture him -- if they promise not to jail him.

But in perhaps an ominous sign of the difficulties police may face, Indonesia's Attorney General Hendarman Supandji has dismissed efforts so far, saying: "This money laundering comes from which crime? This is not clear."

Derry Wanta, a member of the Indonesian Working Group on Forest Finance (IWGFF) -- an independent lobby group of researchers and activists -- conceded it would be difficult to get Lis back to court "but not impossible".

"It is written in the money laundering law that a suspect can be tried for money laundering independent from the prime crime," he told AFP, speaking after a meeting of the group over bringing Lis to justice on Thursday.

Indonesia's groundbreaking 2002 anti-money laundering law would be more effective in catching the illegal loggers than the conventional criminal code, said the IWGFF's Willem Pattinasarany.

"Most of their financial transactions use bank transfers. Unusual banking profiles can be easily traced -- ask (suspects) to prove that those suspicious transactions are not illegal," Pattinasarany said.

"If there are two crimes indicated to be related, one of them money laundering, we think it's best for the money laundering crime to be processed first" because it would be a simpler case, he said.

Still, police must carefully do their homework.
A recent case in Indonesia's timber-rich Papua province centred on a local police chief receiving large money transfers to his personal account; the officer was cleared, and an appeal dismissed, for administrative reasons.

Police said in May that they were becoming increasingly frustrated with the number of illegal loggers who were inexplicably being acquitted in Papua.

"There are many cases where police or prosecutors have not formed a tight case before going ahead to court. This had caused many cases to be dismissed for administrative reasons," Pattinasarany told AFP.

Sadino, a legal expert with the IWGFF, also urged police to be more careful in planning all their indictments, as sloppy work meant "usually, the man with the chainsaw in the forest gets the blame."

"Forestry crimes are specialty cases -- investigators should be coherent from when they start to collect evidence," Sadino said, adding that a single discrepancy can mean the whole case gets thrown out.

The Indonesian government had estimated illegal logging costs the country about four billion dollars and some 2.8 million hectares of forest cover per year over the past decade.