Suspects in the land graft case, including an Italian national (second row), are escorted from Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo to be detained in Kupang, capital of East Nusa Tenggara province, on Jan. 14. (Photo supplied)
A Catholic district chief in Indonesia has been named as one of 16 suspects charged in an embezzlement scandal involving government land in a tourism area in East Nusa Tenggara province.
Agustinus Ch Dula, who heads West Manggarai district, and the others are accused of selling off 30 hectares of government-owned land near the coast in Labuan Bajo on the western tip of Flores, said Yulianto, head of the East Nusa Tenggara High Prosecutor's Office.
The loss to the state is estimated at 1.3 trillion rupiah (US$9.2 million), said the official, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name.
"All are charged with the criminal act of corruption, but other charges could follow," he told a press conference on Jan. 14.
An Italian national, Massimiliano De Reviziis, has been charged along with local politicians, businessmen and a lawyer. They are being held in the provincial capital Kupang.
Yulianto said the land in question was donated to the government by the local community in 1991 for the building of public facilities.
However, the accused sold it secretly with the help of an employee of the National Land Agency, who was also detained, he said.
"We have questioned 102 people in this case," he added.
Yulianto said land in the Labuan Bajo area is in high demand as it is a tourism city and the gateway to the famous Komodo National Park.
The demand has triggered a number of land disputes in recent years.
In 2017, two residents in Mbehal, a village not far from Labuan Bajo, were killed in a land conflict. The killers were people looking after land supposedly belonging to an Australian national.
Gregorius Afioma, director of Sunspirit for Justice and Peace, an organization that focuses on helping local communities, said disputes are not only over privately owned land but also state land.
"Often state land is targeted because it is in a strategic location," he said.
Yosef Sampurna Nggarang, a local activist, said it is hoped this latest case will spur law enforcement officials to investigate other cases.
"Land cases in Labuan Bajo are like a time bomb which if not diffused will explode in the not too distant future," he said.