Ninth time lucky? Hopes for decision in Jakarta filthy air case

Citizens who brought landmark pollution case hope judges will deliver verdict when they sit again on Thursday.

Air Force helicopters carry the national flag above high rise buildings and through the smog during August's Independence Day celebrations in Jakarta [Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Medan, Indonesia – The plaintiffs in a landmark air pollution case brought against the authorities in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta hope they may finally hear a decision in their case, after months of delays, when the court sits again on Thursday.

A verdict was supposed to have been delivered on May 20 but was postponed. A panel of three judges failed to deliver a verdict for the eighth time on September 9.

Citing a failure to finish reading the case documents, Chief Justice H Saifudin Zuhri apologised and made reference to the previous delays, which have included several members of the court such as clerks and judges contracting COVID-19 and the “overwhelming” number of court documents and evidence bundles.

Istu Prayogi, who now lives in the satellite city of Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta to escape the worst of the Indonesian capital’s poor air, is one of 32 plaintiffs in the air pollution “citizen lawsuit” which was filed almost two years ago and aimed at holding the government accountable for failing to secure Jakarta residents’ right to breathe clean air.

Istu Prayogi is one of 32 plaintiffs in the air pollution “citizen lawsuit” and is frustrated at the perpetual delay to the verdict. His T-shirt reads ‘Jakarta vs Air Pollution’ [Courtesy of Istu Prayogi]

He previously told Al Jazeera that Jakarta’s dirty air caused him great suffering in the 1990s when he had to deal with frequent shortness of breath, crushing headaches and nasal congestion. Following the eighth failure to deliver a verdict, Istu said that while aggressive medication had cured some of his health problems, including spots in his lungs, he was deeply unsatisfied with the legal process, describing Indonesian law as a “blunt instrument”.

“It’s like the law of the jungle if you want to get justice,” he said.

The city, which has an estimated population of more than 10 million people, regularly ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world according to world air quality indexes.

Lack of urgency

Another plaintiff, Elisa Sutanudjaja, told Al Jazeera that she was “angry and concerned” as a result of the continued delays. Elisa originally took an interest in the case after she became a mother and worried first about the effect of Jakarta’s smog on her unborn child and then her young daughter.

“The postponement only adds additional evidence that the issues of air pollution and the climate crisis are not the main priority of the state, and that the judiciary does not consider the issue of poor air quality as urgent,” she said.

“Moreover, we are in the middle of a pandemic, but the state does not appear to be showing a commitment to public health.”

Elisa added that she is also worried that a number of other environmentally unfriendly projects have been greenlit in the capital city – including a double-decker toll road and a waste incinerator – while the citizen lawsuit has languished through the court system.

Following the latest postponement, the Clean Air Initiative Coalition, which is composed of plaintiffs in the citizen lawsuit and their advocacy team, issued a statement expressing dismay at the sluggish process.

Legal counsel for the plaintiffs, Ayu Eza Tiara, said that they had sent a letter to the Judicial Commission and the Supervisory Body of the Supreme Court regarding the postponement of the verdict and had reported the three judges, H Saifudin Zuhri, Duta Baskara and Tuty Haryati, for delaying the case and potentially violating the judicial code of ethics.

“We agreed to report the panel of judges for alleged violations of the code of ethics, and we also asked the Judicial Commission and the Supreme Court to monitor the case. Usually a delay happens only once and only for a period of about one week, but in this case it has taken more than three months for the verdict to be read,” Ayu said.

The court in Jakarta began hearing the case more than 700 days ago [File: Bagus Indahono/EPA]

She also added that the coalition of legal counsel and plaintiffs were disappointed by the court’s seeming prioritisation of other cases, as the verdict of the citizen lawsuit was originally postponed until September 13, only to be pushed back again to September 16.

“In the courtroom the original date was cancelled because the panel of judges said that there are many corruption cases that are more urgent than air pollution. That statement is, of course, very saddening,” Ayu said.

‘Interested parties’

Alghifari Aqsa of the AMAR law firm, who has attended every trial session, added that the “protracted delay in reading the verdict of this case could trigger the perception of lobbying of interested parties outside the court”.

Previously, the governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, blamed the plaintiffs and Jakarta residents for the pollution in the city. However, there is no evidence of lobbying by the central or provincial governments in this case.

The defendants in the case are listed as Indonesia’s president, the minister of environment and forestry, the minister of home affairs, the governor of Jakarta and the governors of Banten and West Java provinces.

The severe air pollution in Jakarta has been blamed on the city’s heavy traffic as well as coal-fired power stations and industry [File: Raisan Al Farisi/Antara Foto via Reuters]

Alghifari pointed out that more than 700 days have passed since the lawsuit was filed on July 4, 2019, and urged the courts to take the case seriously, considering the weight of evidence compiled by the plaintiffs’ legal team.

“The judges should know this case is very serious because the plaintiffs are victims of air pollution,” Alghifari said. “Then there are the witnesses we brought in, and all of the data presented that proves that air pollution has a huge effect on our society.”

Source: Al Jazeera