Tough penalties for Indonesia’s hajj fraudsters

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But will the outrage against pilgrimage pirates spread against those fleecing Indonesian society as a whole?
Indonesian courts have been handing down tough sentences to business operators who scammed customers, promising them cut-price pilgrimages to the holy places of Islam but then failing to deliver.
Some cases have involved sums as large as 1 trillion rupiah — US$71.4 million — and now the jail terms handed down against the fraudsters are reaching 20 years.
The scams emerged as soon as it became fashionable for Indonesian Muslims to demonstrate their regard for their religion by embarking on the minor hajj when a place on the hajj itself can mean a wait of up to 15 years.
In contrast, embarking on the minor hajj — umroh — requires no long waiting period, since it can be conducted at any time, in contrast to the hajj itself, which is conducted at sharply delineated times and is far more arduous.
The umroh, by comparison, is as much akin to tourism as a religious pilgrimage, but it retains the hallmark of religious sanctity that appeals to the burgeoning Muslim middle class. Disposable incomes plus a newfound interest in the outward display of piety in fashion in particular have also driven religious travel.
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At the same time, the propensity of some Indonesians to find new ways to make quick profits at other people’s expense has seen a sharp rise in the number of cases of fraud. In a case involving 1.2 trillion rupiah in losses, one of the largest so far, three executives of travel company PT Amanah Bersama Umma, or Abu Tours, were found to have fleeced 96,000 prospective pilgrims in 15 provinces.
The courts are not impressed by the fleecing of the faithful. The Makassar District Court in South Sulawesi on Feb. 21 jailed three executives of the company — Nursyariah Mansyur, M. Kasim and Khairuddin — for 19, 16 and 14 years in jail respectively and ordered them to each pay 300 million rupiah in fines in lieu of additional prison terms. Earlier, Mansyur’s husband and the director of the company, Hamzah Mamba, was sentenced to 20 years in jail for his involvement in the fraud.
In a similar case, the Supreme Court on Jan. 31 upheld jail terms for the owners of PT First Anugerah Karya Wisata, better known as First Travel, for fraud and money laundering. In that case, tens of thousands of people seeking to participate in the hajj and umroh were defrauded. The court handed out sentences of up to 20 years in jail for the company’s personnel.
Another, less spectacular case saw umroh travel companies suffer losses when they were tricked by a travel agency director who sold them flights to Jeddah from Medan in North Sumatra via Colombo in Sri Lanka that didn’t exist.
“On the day of their departure, [they realized] the flight did not exist,” explained North Sumatra police official Andi Rian. “The two companies had to buy flights for the prospective pilgrims themselves.” That cost them a combined 2.8 billion rupiah in losses.
The sentences being handed down are draconian; a simple murder might rate only an eight-year jail term. The fraud sentences appear to represent judicial outrage at the criminalization of religion, with people who have scraped together the cash to go on the trip of a lifetime victimized by smooth-talking operators.
The operators know that because of the long waiting list, putting your money down for the hajj doesn’t provide much instant gratification. Putting down 20 million rupiah for an umroh pilgrimage can see you walk out of the travel agency with an air ticket in your hand.
Some customers are their own worst enemies. Offers of umroh pilgrimages for sums of around 15 million rupiah (US$1,070) are quickly snapped up, even though it’s common knowledge that 20 million rupiah is the standard. Such special deals are often illusory, with the travel agency quietly disappearing before the date of a trip arrives.
The cases illustrate the reality that while Indonesia may host the world’s largest Muslim population, that is no guarantee of honesty. The recent annual conference of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, saw sanctions on a wide variety of social issues, including littering and multi-level marketing.
Why multi-level marketing? Because, says one person who has met victims, unscrupulous individuals can enlist the cash reserves of others — and strip them of their savings. The source says two such victims were forced to become domestic servants after their modest savings were stolen.
Official crime statistics that suggest that Indonesia is a relatively safe country often don’t include the losses of people at the grassroots. If they do report a crime to police, it’s unlikely the report will be followed up because it looks bad on police statistics for the year.
Corruption remains rife, with little evidence to suggest that the solid work of the Corruption Eradication Commission, active though it is in snaring wrongdoing, is having much effect on a culture that tends to condone high-level filching of state funds.
Last year’s pursuit of former House of Representatives Speaker Setya Novanto for massive corruption in the country’s electronic identity card program saw little overt public reaction, despite the disappearance of some US$170 million of public funds into the pockets of the rich.
Day-to-day realities such as this tend to deny the official statistics that show the country’s Gini coefficient — a gauge of social inequality — trending downward from the danger level of 4.0 at which security is threatened. Indonesia remains a deeply unequal society and to many outsiders the most remarkable fact is that there is so little protest about the situation.
The naked theft of the personal savings of thousands of people who want to celebrate their personal good fortune by expressing their religiosity in a painless trip to the holy places of the Middle East seems to have finally touched a nerve, at least with the courts tasked with meting out justice to shysters.
It remains to be seen if the contempt for common decency that these crimes reveal can provoke a wider sense of outrage at the injustice of Indonesian society. 
Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.  

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