New York Times
THE SATURDAY PROFILE
Trapped Inside a Broken Judicial System After Hitting Send
"People always lose to the powerful in this country. I'm a mother, a regular person like everybody else, so a lot of people identified with me and felt sympathy." PRITA MULYASARI
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: December 05, 2009
PRITA MULYASARI became famous, as her lawyer put it, for going from "e-mail to jail."
Her ordeal began when she sent an e-mail message complaining about the poor treatment she received at a hospital to 20 relatives, friends and co-workers. The message, forwarded from one mailing list to another, eventually fell into the hands of the hospital's lawyers, who sued for defamation. In no time, Ms. Mulyasari, 32, a mother of two infants, found herself sharing a jail cell with murderers and facing six years in prison, seemingly yet another ordinary Indonesian caught up in one of the world's most corrupt legal systems.
And yet Ms. Mulyasari's story didn't end there. After word of her predicament leaked out, support for her swelled in Indonesia's freewheeling news media and blogosphere, forcing the authorities to release her after three weeks in jail.
"People always lose to the powerful in this country," Mrs. Mulyasari said. "I'm a mother, a regular person like everybody else, so a lot of people identified with me and felt sympathy."
Being a symbol made her visibly uncomfortable, though, as she posed for photographs for supporters at a court hearing this week here in Tangerang, a city near the capital, Jakarta. A ruling in her trial is expected later this month, and Mrs. Mulyasari said she was hoping that a not-guilty verdict would allow her to slip back into anonymity. Prosecutors are seeking a six-month sentence.
Whatever the judgment, it will be scrutinized because of an unrelated, continuing scandal involving the national police, attorney general's office and anticorruption agency. Recent revelations have put a spotlight on a judicial netherworld where the rich routinely bribe corrupt police officials, prosecutors and judges for favorable treatment.
Meanwhile, ordinary people appear subject to severe punishment for seemingly harmless infractions. Last month, an illiterate grandmother in Central Java was convicted of stealing cacao fruits worth 15 cents, which she took by mistake, from a plantation company and handed a suspended sentence of 45 days. A Jakarta man arrested for charging his cellphone in a hallway inside his building is now on trial for theft.
As for Ms. Mulyasari, she said she had lost faith in the country's legal system.
"My only hope is to pray and to appeal to the judge's humanity," she said, a few minutes before her hearing began.
On this morning, as they had done for every court hearing in recent months, Ms. Mulyasari and her husband, Andri Nugroho, 30, took a day off from work and left their two children at home. It was her lawyers' turn to argue that Ms. Mulyasari had had no intention of forwarding her e-mail message beyond the original recipients.
In a courtroom with no air-conditioning, where many fanned themselves with sheets of paper, her lawyers took turns reading from a 178-page brief. Ms. Mulyasari, who did not speak, sat by herself in a chair facing three judges on an elevated bench. Only the white hijab covering her head was visible from the gallery.
It all began one night 16 months ago when Ms. Mulyasari went to the Omni International Hospital here with a high fever, a few months after the birth of her second child. She had driven by the hospital many times before and had been drawn by the word "international" on the modern building's facade. "You think the service must be good, that the standards are international," she said during breaks in the hearing.
ACCORDING to Mrs. Mulyasari's account, she was diagnosed with dengue fever, an infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes that is common here, and began receiving injections. But her condition kept getting worse. As her neck, left hand and left eye swelled, she had trouble breathing. After six days at Omni, she transferred herself to another hospital, which immediately diagnosed her with mumps and treated her.
Angry about her treatment at Omni and what she described as the staff's unresponsiveness, she composed the long e-mail message detailing her experience there, criticizing physicians and others by name. Then, using her Yahoo account, she fired it off to her circle of family, friends and colleagues at the bank where she works in customer service. "I don't want to know who forwarded it," she said, "because they're all family and friends."
The message flitted from one address to another, bouncing onto a Yahoo mailing list of Indonesian physicians, before being picked up by Omni.
The hospital's lawyers filed a civil lawsuit, eventually winning $21,600 in damages, a ruling that Ms. Mulyasari's chief lawyer, Slamet Yuwono, is planning to appeal. What's more, acting on the hospital's complaints, prosecutors at first pursued criminal charges of defamation, which carries a maximum four-year prison sentence. Lawyers for Omni did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Then, for reasons that remain unclear, prosecutors indicted Ms. Mulyasari under a new law governing electronic information and transactions, which carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison. This law, originally intended to help regulate business transactions, was enacted in such a way that, human rights organizations warned, it could be used to rein in Indonesia's flourishing Internet culture. Ms. Mulyasari was one of the first people to be charged under the law, which, because it carries a maximum prison sentence of more than five years, allowed the authorities to put her in jail immediately.
"I asked the prosecutors to let me go home for one night to say goodbye to my family, but they refused," Ms. Mulyasari said.
During her 21 days in jail, she was kept in a small cell with 11 other inmates and was unaware that news of her incarceration had spread in the media, in blogs and on Facebook. Lawyers volunteered to defend her pro bono. She was freed, relieved to go home but no longer able to breastfeed her daughter Ranarya, who was 16 months old at the time.
Whenever her trial seemed over, a new development would bring her back to court. Her case was dismissed in July, but prosecutors quickly succeeded in obtaining a new trial.
A local politician tried to broker an out-of-court settlement between Ms. Mulyasari and the hospital. "But the hospital demanded a written apology," she said. "If I'd agreed, that would have meant admitting that I was wrong."
Born in Jakarta, Ms. Mulyasari has lived in this area her entire life, except for three years of college in Perth, Australia. For several years, she worked in customer service at an insurance company where she met her future husband, a graphic designer. When they married in 2006, in keeping with a widespread practice forbidding couples to work in the same company, she switched to her current employer, an Indonesian bank.
"When I first met her," said her husband, Mr. Nugroho, "I saw her as a strong and independent woman."
BY midafternoon, as the heat settled all over the courtroom, Ms. Mulyasari's lawyers neared the end of their 178-page brief. Some people in the gallery were sound asleep. The chief judge handed a piece of candy to an assistant judge who, clearly struggling to stay awake, kept rubbing his eyes. The tilt of Ms. Mulyasari's covered head, seen from the gallery, suggested that she, too, was nodding off.
With another hearing fixed for next week, the couple drove their Honda hatchback to the middle-class, gated community here where they live in a small rented house. Their neighborhood is more than two hours from their offices in Jakarta. But their children are free to play on their block.
One of the couple's two maids brought out a cake. It happened to be Mr. Nugroho's birthday. "I just hope this will be all over by the end of the year," Ms. Mulyasari said. "I'm not comfortable being famous. People recognize me in the malls or in the markets, and I have to be nice to them, even though I'm not in a good mood. I prefer being a normal person."