By Aisyah Llewellyn and Ahmad Rafii / This Week in Asia

In January, Indonesian police searched the home of Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin, the Regent of Langkat, after he had been arrested for allegedly receiving kickbacks for infrastructure projects.

But what was meant to be a corruption investigation turned into something wider, when officers raided the expansive compound in North Sumatra surrounded by oil palm plantations.

In the backyard lay two ornate fish ponds and poultry coops – and locked up near the chickens and birds were some 40 detainees, who peered at shocked policemen from behind the iron bars of their prison cells.

As the probe expanded to include allegations of human rights abuses – including modern-day slavery, torture and illegal incarceration – Perangin Angin denied initial police suggestions he had been using the caged men as workers for his plantation. Instead, the regent claimed he had been running a rehabilitation centre for drug abusers, a claim corroborated by some locals speaking up in favour of a practice that has sparked debate in Indonesia.
 
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Claudia Stoicescu, Associate Professor of Public Health at Monash University Indonesia, said the regent’s case was an “an example of insidious systemic corruption in the police and in the criminal justice system in Indonesia”.

“In a legal and social environment such as Indonesia where drugs are viewed as an ultimate social evil, and those who use drugs are highly stigmatised and dehumanised, it is inevitable that inhuman and degrading treatment will occur,” she said.

Stoicescu said the case required an independent investigation to crack down on the individuals and networks that allowed for the incarceration to happen, with serious consideration to the possibility that there were similar cases around the country.

“But to prevent such torture and degrading punishment from occurring in the future, Indonesia must reform its drug laws,” she said. “Indonesian legislators should remove criminal and administrative penalties for drug use, including mandatory drug rehab – which is currently legal and widely practised – in favour of public health-oriented approaches.”