Rahmat Witoelar: "If we are in the right, why should we be afraid?"

THE Buyat Bay pollution case, which lasted throughout 2004, is now heading towards an out-of-court settlement. Why did the government finally take that road? Tempo reporter Sukma N. Loppies and Abdul Manan met with Environment Minister Rahmat Witoelar last Friday for an interview. Excerpts:

What is the government's position on the civil lawsuit against Newmont?
We had taken civil and criminal legal action against the company. The criminal lawsuit was based on the suspicion that they had broken the law. Whether this is true or not depends on the court. Aside from suspicion of having broken the law, there were losses incurred. Essentially, the state sued them according to civil law because we felt the environment was damaged and the community suffered losses over there because of them. We are involved in the environmental part, the attorney general deals with the law. I am giving special authority to the Attorney General's Office.

What happened at the May 13 meeting?
The Buyat case is technically discussed between departments, so the meeting was held at the Office of Coordinating Minister for the Economy. At the meeting, the attorney general's lawsuit was clarified. The judge had given us the opportunity to coordinate matters. We accepted the suggestion, because we wanted to discuss three choices: mediation, negotiation or arbitration. We evaluated the losses incurred and sent it to Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Aburizal Bakrie. In simple language, matters about the law will be handled by the attorney general. The substance will be coordinated by the Economics Minister. The meeting reached that conclusion.
So exactly what was decided at the meeting? Mediation?
Why end with an out-of-court settlement?
That's what the judge said. If that works, the dispute will be ended. The judge told us to do it, so we agreed. But Newmont has not [agreed]. For the moment, the process is still being implemented within the judge's scope of work. When everyone has agreed, Newmont will have to pay. Clearly, we sued and it must be settled, whether in or out of court.
If the negotiation succeeds, will the lawsuit be withdrawn?
Of course. It will not be withdrawn, it will be settled. That's automatic. But if there is no compensation, that won't be the case.
It's important that the community gets compensated.
Yes, whether the settlement is in or out of court. We are not emphasizing who is wrong or who is right. That would be the outcome of the criminal case.
Has Newmont ever asked to meet with you to negotiate?
They did. Way before the May 13 meeting, the CEO of Newmont met me in Bali. He asked that this problem be forgotten. We told him we didn't want to. I said, "you admit you were wrong, and you pay." While he insisted his company had done no wrong, he said he would pay anyway. We refused that. It's not just about the money. What if people presumed we were being bribed? Everything must be out in the open.

Will this affect the investment climate?
We would not be affected. The US ambassador has come to see me a few times. I told him I respected the integrity of his country and the integrity of people investing here. But if they come here with the intention to pollute, or commit other ill intentions, then they shouldn't bother coming here. He did say that investors might refuse to come here because of the case, and I told him again, that they would be people with ill intentions.
Did this settlement have anything to do with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's trip to the US?
The president said, do the right thing, so I did. If we are in the right, why should we be afraid? In the US, such disputes end up in court. When SBY is in the US and he is asked about Newmont, he will say that Newmont was taken to court because it was suspected of breaking the law.

TEMPO, MAY 30, 2005-038/P. 27 Heading Law


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