Indonesian bank bailout sparks violent protest

Image: Anti-government protest outside the parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia
A protester hurls a bamboo stick as police water cannon trucks spray water to disperse the others during an anti-government protest outside the parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia. Irwin Fedriansyah / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Anti-government protesters hurled rocks Tuesday at police who returned fire with tear gas and water cannons outside Indonesia's national parliament, where lawmakers argued and shoved each other over a controversial bank bailout.

The violent scenes erupted as almost 1,000 people rallied outside the building in Jakarta to protest the government's $715 million bailout of Indonesia's Bank Century in 2008, which has hurt the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was re-elected in July 2009 on an anti-graft platform.

Demonstrators hung a banner across the front gates of the parliament compound that read: "Replace the regime, replace the system without SBY," referring to Yudhoyono.

Police used riot shields to protect themselves from rocks that rained down and cordoned off parliament with rolls of razor wire.

Police detained two protest organizers on suspicion of defaming government officials and of allowing their supporters to throw rocks, Jakarta police spokesman Col. Boy Rafli Amar said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Police did not specify who had allegedly been defamed or how, but the charge carries a potential maximum penalty of four years in prison. It is not clear what penalty could arise from the rock throwing.

Police had earlier warned protesters against using insulting banners and language, drawing sharp criticism from free speech advocates.

The warning follows a ban last month on the presence of animals at rallies, enacted after protesters tried to parade a water buffalo with Yudhoyono's name spray-painted on it through the city's main traffic circle.

Irregularities in bailout
The protests came as a parliamentary committee inside the building delivered a report on its inquiry into the bank bailout, after the main audit agency alleged irregularities. The inquiry, launched in November 2009, examined the role played by Yudhoyono's political party and government leaders.

The committee had differing opinions, offering up two potential conclusions. Some members thought the bailout was warranted, others that it amounted to abuse of power by authorities. Lawmakers will vote on the two options, but were split over whether to vote on Tuesday or Wednesday. The parliamentary speaker Marzuki Alie angered many by ruling that the vote would be held Wednesday, prompting lawmakers to surge toward him and scuffle among themselves.

The vote will be largely symbolic, since the final decision on any charges lies with the police and an independent anti-corruption commission.

Yudhoyono, Vice President Boediono, and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati have all denied wrongdoing.

Before the rally, police spokesman Amar warned that protesters should show respect for others, including public officials, by not using insulting images or banners. Those who break the rules would be removed from the rally, he said.

Violators can also face prison under Indonesia's tough defamation laws.

Free speech advocate Andreas Harsono said the police crackdown on insults was a clear attempt by the government to stifle free expression.

Since Indonesia's last dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998, democracy had been suppressed by additional defamation laws designed to protect the powerful and corrupt from criticism, said Harsono, a consultant for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"You can't have democracy without free speech and while Indonesia has an electoral democracy, we don't have civil liberties yet," Harsono said.