Indonesia minister turns himself in for COVID-19 aid graft

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – Indonesia’s social affairs minister turned himself in to anti-corruption authorities Sunday to face charges of taking bribes related to the government’s COVID-19 aid distribution.

Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara arrived at the Corruption Eradication Commission’s headquarters in the capital, Jakarta, hours after the commission’s Chairman Firli Bahuri called on him to surrender in a news conference just before midnight Saturday.

Batubara, who is also a member of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, made no comment.

The anti-corruption commission, known by its acronym KPK, said Batubara is accused of receiving at least 17 billion rupiah ($1.2 million) from two supplier companies through his two subordinates, who were also named as suspects.

Bahuri said the suppliers were asked to set aside $0.7 for each package of basic food distributed to the poor for Batubara’s benefit.

He said Batubara could face up to life in prison if found guilty of stealing public money.

“We will not stop here. We will closely watch how the government’s social assistance is being procured and channeled during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bahuri said.

He’s the second Cabinet member arrested for graft in less than two weeks. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, who has since resigned, was also arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in connection with exports of lobster larvae, and allegedly used the money for a luxury shopping spree in the United States.

The cases could further tarnish President Joko Widodo’s credibility in fighting corruption. Two other Cabinet ministers, including Batubara’s predecessor, have been sentenced to prison terms in corruption cases.

Widodo campaigned in part on a pledge to run a clean government in a country that ranked 85th out of 180 nations in the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International.

Indonesia has reported nearly 570,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the largest in Southeast Asia and second in Asia only to India’s 9.6 million confirmed cases. Indonesia also recorded more than 17,000 deaths from the coronavirus, and has been adding 4,000-6,000 cases daily since last month.

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