Yusril Ihza Mahendra is a familiar face to many Indonesians. He has worked under four Indonesian presidents as a speech writer, as justice and human rights minister, and most recently as state secretary to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
He was replaced by Hatta Rajasa in 2007, but the legal and constitutional expert, lawyer and former chairman of the Crescent Star Party (PBB) has managed to stay in the limelight.
“What I’ve been doing, others might say it’s controversial, things that people might not have thought of before,” the soft-spoken 56-year-old tells the Jakarta Globe.
“Everybody reads the same laws, the same regulations, but I have more experience and sharper analysis.”
Over the past two years, he has made headlines by challenging — and winning — several high-profile cases against the government, including one leading to the dismissal of then-Attorney General Hendarman Supandji.
Now he is disputing two presidential decrees at the State Administrative Court (PTUN). One deals with the removal of graft convict Agusrin Najamuddin, Yusril’s client, from his position as governor of Bengkulu, while the other is on the appointment of Agusrin’s replacement. In an interim ruling issued last month, the court accepted the suit and ordered the inauguration of the new governor to be delayed.
Agusrin is not the first person embroiled in graft whom Yusril has represented. He is currently lending his legal expertise to Siti Fadillah Supari, the former health minister who was named a suspect by the National Police for her involvement in alleged markups in the procurement of health equipment in 2005, which allegedly cost the state Rp 6.1 billion ($665,000) in losses.
In March, Yusril represented eight graft convicts and challenged a decree by his former office, the Justice and Human Rights Ministry, that outlined stricter requirements for corruption convicts to receive sentence reductions normally handed out during national holidays.
“Indonesia ratified UN conventions and protocols that prohibit discrimination against convicts. Denying clemency for corruption convicts is unfair,” Yusril says.
“I am very concerned about justice and the rule of law. Some of the people I defend are still corruption suspects. But the media and NGOs create this public perception that a corruption suspect is already a corruption convict.
“We judge them before the trial and we ignore the presumption of innocence, which is an essential human right.”
Yusril knows what it feels like to be on that side of the law. In 2008, he was named a suspect with six others for alleged embezzlement in the running of a business registration website at the Justice Ministry.
The court convicted and jailed four people, but three were acquitted by the Supreme Court on appeal. The fourth is awaiting a decision on his appeal.
Last month, Attorney General Basrief Arief announced that the AGO had dropped the case, citing insufficient evidence.
“I was a suspect in this case for four years. I believe the case was politically motivated and fabricated by those who don’t like my way of doing things,” Yusril says.
“I lost my clients one by one. At one point I couldn’t even pay the office rent, but the owner was lenient with me. Other suspects saw their families torn apart. Where is the justice in that?”
Yusril is still crusading. On Thursday, on behalf of the National Anti-Drug Movement (Granat), he filed another suit against a decree by Yudhoyono that reduced the jail sentence of Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby by five years to 15 years.
Despite his numerous pending actions against the Yudhoyono administration, Yusril says his personal relationship with the president is strong.
“We’re politically opposed, but personally we’re on good terms. I came to his son’s wedding and he also recently came to my daughter’s wedding,” he says.
Two weeks before the PTUN issued its ruling last month, the president even invited him to a private meeting at his home in Cikeas, Bogor, to discuss the case.
“When I was [state secretary], I advised SBY against signing dubious letters and decrees, but his closest people thought I was meddling too much,” Yusril says. “But now I can see they know nothing.”
And he’s not stopping there. Yusril says one of his dreams is to run for president.
“But I still don’t know if I can find the right tool, or ship. It’s time for the country to be led by a rational person who understands the core issues facing this nation and has the courage to bear the risks and make decisions that could save the nation’s future,” he says.
“Ours is a country based on the supremacy of law, so the leader must understand legal matters.”