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Are Indonesian Cops Using Sexy Photos to Smear an Anti-Corruption Watchdog?

Photos appearing to show the country's leading ethics watchdog fooling around with Miss Indonesia have rocked the political and law enforcement establishment.

Indonesian security forces have a corruption problem. Photo via Flickr user Yulian Hendriyana

Early Wednesday morning, several mainstream Indonesian newspapers and a WhatsApp chat group of local reporters received a message containing pictures apparently depicting Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) head Abraham Samad smooching and cuddling with someone who looks like Elvira Devinamira, the winner of Miss Indonesia 2014. The photos, sent from someone claiming to be Devinamira but of unknown actual origins, have exploded in the local press and social media.

The photos gained traction not just because they are tawdry—Devinamira is 21 and Samad is 48, married, and a prominent national figure—but because many suspect they are part of a longstanding feud between Indonesia's anti-corruption watchdogs and the police.

One day before the photos emerged, Samad announced a major corruption case against Police Commissioner General Budi Gunawan. The general was President Joko Widodo's sole candidate—of five options presented to him by the law enforcement corruption watchdog National Police Commission—to replace Indonesia's outgoing National Police Chief, and despite the whiff of scandal, parliament approved Gunawan for the post on Thursday.

Samad's case against the general follows a six-month investigation into irregularities in Gunawan's bank accounts, which was flagged as early as 2010. The officer's personal wealth inexplicably grew from $364,000 to $1.79 million between 2008 and 2013 and he has faced corruption allegations before. Yet the police and hostile politicians took the timing of the announcement—the day before the general's nomination was to be voted on by lawmakers—as a pointed jab.

Samad has gone on record claiming the photos are retaliation for his case against Gunawan, and he has some cause—beyond the proximity of the photos' release—to pin them on the police.

Since its foundation in 2002, the KPK has gained a reputation for honesty, integrity, and decisive action. In notoriously corrupt Indonesia, that's meant taking on chief justices, ministers, and well-connected tycoons. In the past, the KPK has gutted the cabinet of then president and commission originator Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. They prosecuted a member of his extended family too. Just last year, in addition to spreading anti-corruption messages via pedicabs and a gaming app, the agency took on murky deals between the nation's leading energy businessmen and its flagship air carrier.

Such high-level prosecutions seem to have some political elites desperate to legally defang the KPK. Alongside these legislative challenges, lawmakers have tried to challenge the character of individual investigators before, including Samad, who has been chief since 2012.

Its pit bull approach has also often led the KPK to lash out at the supposedly untouchable police. Meanwhile, the cops implicated a former chief for arranging a drive-by shooting against a man whose wife he was supposedly in love with, tried to plaster KPK agents with their own bribery charges, and threatened to raid the agency's offices and arrest investigators. When the magazine Tempo published a story on some earlier corruption charges against Gunawan, the police appear to have bought up every print copy. (The magazine's offices were then mysteriously firebombed.)

As of now, Samad's accusations have not caused Gunawan any problems with his potential promotion. With parliament giving him the nod, it's up to President Joko Widodo—a.k.a. Jokowi—to decide whether or not to actually swear him in on Friday.

That's a pain for Jokowi, who came into power as a populist, anti-corruption crusader from outside the traditional political elite. His support of the KPK in its legislative battles and willingness to have his cabinet vetted by the agency seemed to cement this reputation. Yet his nomination of Gunawan, whom Samad claims he's warned Jokowi about, has ruffled the feathers of watchdogs.

Some suspect Jokowi was forced to push for Gunawan by the head of his party, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, on whose security detail Gunawan served from 2001 to 2004. That's plausible given that Jokowi is facing opposition from almost every sector of Indonesia's political world.

Others speculate that, rather than shaming Jokowi for his nomination, the KPK might have been giving him a good excuse to dump Gunawan and reaffirm his commitment to anti-graft goals. But in practice they've just put him in a precarious situation, offering Jokowi's political opponents ammunition, and chipping away at his populist aura by boxing the president into a corner.

As Jokowi figures out how to handle this Gunawan debacle, Samad is struggling to defend his character, rabidly denying the intimate photos' authenticity.

"This is gossip that was deliberately spread to destroy me and criminalize me," he texted MetroTVNews.

Putri Kusuma Wardani, head of the Miss Indonesia Foundation, and Minister of Sports and former IT expert Roy Suryo, both believe the photos were edited. A KPK investigation has (unsurprisingly) confirmed these allegations of malicious character assassination via Photoshop.

Yet the photos aren't so easily brushed aside. Screenshots from Devinamira's Instagram account from five weeks ago appear to corroborate that the two have met. And independent analysis of the photos by leading Indonesian editor Agan Harahap, famous for transposing Western stars into Indonesian contexts, claims that the photos are either authentic or flawlessly edited, as they show no clear signs of manipulation at the pixel level. But Harahap also insinuated that even if real, the individuals pictured could just be lookalikes.

Even if he can prove that the photos were fake, Samad will still face questioning by the parliament, which is suspicious of the timing of his case against Gunawan. Ironically, with Samad on the rocks personally and the KPK in the rough politically, the only person walking out of this situation relatively unscathed is Gunawan. Whether or not he was the one who sent the photos, that's a disconcerting reality that has to make the beleaguered Samad crazy.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.