Indonesians in Focus: Abdul Rahman Saleh


If former attorney general Abdul Rahman Saleh has something to complain about since returning to civilian life, it is the lack of vibrancy in the capital’s art scene.

“When I was a student in Yogyakarta, there were so many plays being staged for different occasions, such as for independence day or the birth of the Prophet,” Abdul Rahman said in a recent interview at his heretofore official residence in Kuningan, Central Jakarta.

It seems he was being nostalgic about the bohemian life he led in the early 1970s than the time he was at the helm of the Attorney General’s Office.

The former high-ranking official, who was reportedly disappointed with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s decision to end his tenure after two-and-a-half years, now takes everything in his stride.

“My family once ran a bookstore and a printing company. Now that I have more free time I can return to the media business, or will maybe even write a book,” he said.

He gave a knowing grin when asked about the new post offered to him by Yudhoyono.

It is clear that Abdul needs not worry about how he will spend his retirement time.

After all, he is probably the only former minister-level official who received a farewell party from members of civil society.

And it was a bittersweet farewell party for non-governmental organization (NGO) activists, who lamented the fact they no longer had a surrogate in the government to support their causes.

For NGO activists, Abdul was a beacon of hope in their campaign to reform the judiciary, a cause that the 66-year old has consistently subscribed to long before he was appointed attorney general in late 2004.

He may not be remembered as an attorney general who managed the most cases — in fact his decision to drop criminal cases against former president Soeharto would be much loathed by members of the civil society — but Abdul Rahman has laid the foundation for creating a clean and accountable judiciary.

Midway through his term he initiated the formation of an independent prosecutors commission, which served to counterbalance the AGO’s internal monitoring division in assessing the performance and conduct of prosecutors. He also pushed for the introduction of merit-based management to the AGO.

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“I am glad that my successor has acknowledged these achievement,” he said.

His decision to bring outsiders to the AGO has reportedly stirred indignation among his staff to the point where it has even endangered his life.

Early in his term at the AGO, Abdul always brought his own homemade lunch to work, some say from fear that he might be poisoned.

“Actually, I have been bringing my own lunch to work since I was a Supreme Court justice. Besides, I like my wife’s cooking,” he said, chuckling.

Abdul seems unapologetic for his much-criticized decision to drop criminal charges against Soeharto.

“The Supreme Court decided that Soeharto was not physically fit to stand trial, so if I continue to build a criminal case against him, I would need to apply the law arbitrarily.

“We have to be fair, even to our enemies,” he said.

History will remember Abdul Rahman as a man with a tough stance against corruption.

Of five Supreme Court justices who heard the corruption case of former speaker of the House of Representatives, Akbar Tandjung, in 2004, Abdul was the only one who gave his legal opinion that Akbar was guilty.

That, and his reputation as a `clean’ figure, drew the attention of Yudhoyono to appoint him as attorney general.

Abdul has come a long way before reaching the pinnacle of his career. Along the way, he took numerous detours that any high-members of the Cabinet would envy.

Before his plunge into the practice of law at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta) — in which he defended numerous activists accused of subversion by Soeharto’s New Order regime — Abdul worked as a journalist for the now-defunct Nusantara daily, between 1968 and 1971.

Later, during his term at LBH Jakarta, he managed to find time to demonstrate his acting abilities — starring in some of the country’s blockbuster movies.

He was cast in 10 different movies during his short-lived career in the film industry, including the widely-acclaimed Kabut Sutra Ungu (Purple Silk Haze) in 1980 and Wali Songo (Nine Oracles), in which he shared acclaim with veteran actors Deddy Soetomo, George Rudy and Guruh Soekarnoputra.

It was his time spent with playwright W.S. Rendra and director Arifin C. Noor, during his university years in Yogyakarta, that taught him much about acting and scriptwriting.

He attended Gadjah Mada University law school and shared a room with Rendra, who at the time was a leading figure in Yogyakarta’s burgeoning art scene.

“I wrote a number of scripts for some of Rendra’s and Arifin’s plays and in return I was asked to act in them.”

When he relocated to Jakarta, some of his friends from Yogyakarta were already big names in the movie industry.

“It was like returning to my old community, only the place was different,” he said.

M. Taufiqurrahman

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