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At 50, Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute continues to stand on the side of victims

LBH continues to stand firmly on the side of victims, while fiercely defending Indonesia’s democratic gains. During the #ReformasiDikorupsi protests in 2019, the LBH offices were a hive of activity. Ari Bowo Sucipto/Antara Foto

When thousands of demonstrators in Indonesia were arrested during protests against the controversial omnibus Law on Job Creation earlier this month, there was little question which organisation would be there to defend them.

For decades, the Legal Aid Institute (Lembaga Bantuan Hukum or LBH) has been the defence of choice in the country’s most controversial political cases.

This week, LBH marks its 50th birthday. Beginning as a single office in Jakarta, it now has 16 offices across Indonesia, with the Indonesian Foundation of Legal Aid Institutes (YLBHI) serving as the central umbrella body.

For half a century, it has defended poor and marginalised Indonesians. It has taken on highly charged political cases, spoken out boldly against abuses of state power, and advanced notions of the rule of law, constitutional democracy and human rights.

In doing so it has become an icon of Indonesian civil society and a staunch defender of the public interest.


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‘Locomotive of democracy’

Adnan Buyung Nasution founded LBH to introduce a free legal aid service in Indonesia. But it was never solely about expanding access to justice.

Even from its early days, LBH saw the legal aid movement as a key part of a wider struggle for constitutionalism and the rule of law.

Under Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order, LBH quickly realised that providing pro bono assistance for individual cases would not affect the underlying causes of inequality and injustice.

Providing conventional legal aid under these conditions was “hopelessly beside the point”, wrote prominent legal scholar Daniel Lev.

LBH therefore developed its own ideology of legal aid, “structural legal aid”. LBH combined legal representation with a broad range of non-litigation activities.

LBH lawyers and staff educated communities about their rights and helped them to fight for those rights. They also carried out media campaigns and published research.

During the final years of the New Order, LBH developed into a hub of civil society resistance to the Soeharto regime, a gathering point for students and activists.

LBH styled itself as a “locomotive of democracy” to disseminate human rights and democratic ideas and eventually “lay the groundwork for democratic transformation”.


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Finding its footing in democratic Indonesia

In 1998, the New Order regime collapsed. Indonesia began its transition to democracy. The lifting of restrictions on civil society led to the emergence of a range of specialised organisations, some with similar mandates to LBH.

LBH was suddenly forced to reflect on its organisational identity and its role in a more democratic Indonesia.

It was no longer the dominant voice in civil society. And some of the newer organisations were quite comfortable about engaging with the government.

For a while, LBH struggled to find its footing. It had to decide whether to collaborate with state institutions or maintain a confrontational approach.

In addition to having to rethink its reason for being, YLBHI faced major funding constraints as foreign donors who had provided support for its operations shifted focus and placed stronger emphasis on governance programming.

YLBHI also experienced several debilitating crises during leadership changes, which weakened the organisation.

Buyung’s controversial decision to represent General Wiranto in 2000, who was accused of rights abuses in East Timor in 1999, didn’t help either.

It alienated his colleagues and broader civil society. Buyung might have been motivated by efforts to promote a professional legal culture, but he moved too quickly for his colleagues, who still considered the legal system to be corrupt and unjust.


Read more: 'Continue the fight!': a '98 activist reflects on the 2019 student movement in Indonesia


Defending the marginalised

Despite these challenges, LBH has continued to defend the most marginalised people and the most unpopular causes in Indonesia.

When more than 140 gay men were arrested in a police raid on a Jakarta sauna in 2017, LBH was a key member of the civil society coalition that came to their defence.

This was soon after the peak of a national attack on LGBTIQ rights, at a time when 93% of the population said society should not accept homosexuality.

LBH has also been involved in almost all the significant blasphemy cases of the democratic era. And much as it did under Soeharto, LBH has continued to defend the urban poor from forced evictions, farmers who face losing their land for development projects, worker’s rights and the rights of women and children.

Since the fall of Soeharto, civil society organisations, including LBH, have been at the forefront of efforts to establish a new tradition of public interest litigation at the Constitutional Court.

LBH lawyers were a key part of the coalition that successfully challenged the attorney general’s power to ban books.

In the democratic era, LBH has largely maintained the adversarial approach to engaging with the government that it developed under Soeharto.

At times, other elements of civil society criticised it for this. They felt LBH was not taking up opportunities to play a role in strengthening the institutions of the newly democratic state.

But LBH is unapologetic. As YLBHI’s Febi Yonesta told me, “as long as community members are victims, we will be in opposition to government”. Like activist lawyers in many places around the world, they are a nuisance to the government, “and they mean to be a nuisance”.

Because of this, LBH has often faced considerable backlash.

In 2017, for example, police broke up an academic discussion at LBH on the 1965-66 anti-communist violence, following pressure from Islamist and anti-communist protesters.

Given LBH’s legacy and profile, this was widely seen as an attack on civil society itself. For many in civil society, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s silence following the attack was further evidence of his apathy toward human rights and law reform.

Since this event, democratic regression has become entrenched. The government has increasingly used blasphemy and defamation provisions to silence its critics. Restrictions on freedom of association are growing. Minority rights are poorly protected.

But as the government has become more repressive, LBH appears to have found a renewed clarity of focus. It continues to stand firmly on the side of victims, while fiercely defending Indonesia’s democratic gains.

During the #ReformasiDikorupsi (Reform Corrupted) protests in 2019, the LBH offices were a hive of activity. Even the term Reformasi Dikorupsi itself was coined at a late-night meeting of dozens of civil society activists at the LBH office.

LBH is again playing a leading role in the #MosiTidakPercaya demonstrations that have emerged in response to the omnibus law.

While LBH is no longer the only influential pro-democracy organisation, it seems to be relishing again playing the convening, coalition-building role it did under the New Order.

How should we assess LBH’s influence after half a century?

As the late prominent scholar of the Indonesian legal profession, Daniel Lev, said of LBH in the late 1980s: “Its impact on social, political and legal affairs should not be exaggerated, but it cannot be ignored.”

With vocal government critics being arrested based on trumped-up accusations, gay men being arrested for having a private party, and lawmakers violating legislative procedures to pass highly contentious laws with minimal public consultation, LBH has never been as essential to Indonesian democracy as it is right now.

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