Tak­ing Leaf of Their San­ity

A con­man has been ar­rested near Jakarta after fleec­ing at least Rp.1 bil­lion (US$75,000) from peo­ple who be­lieved his “re­li­gious pow­ers” could trans­form leaves into money.

Indonesia Expat - - NEWS - By Ken­neth Ye­ung

It was ap­pro­pri­ate that Afandi San­gadji Idris, 48 years old, was ar­rested on April 1.

For more than a year he had been fool­ing peo­ple by pos­ing as an Is­lamic preacher ca­pa­ble of con­jur­ing up riches from worth­less aca­cia leaves. Ac­cord­ing to con­ven­tional In­done­sian wis­dom, aca­cia trees de­ter ter­mites. Un­for­tu­nately, they did not di­min­ish Afandi’s ap­petite for chew­ing through gullible peo­ple’s cash.

He sold boxes of leaves for up to Rp.3 mil­lion ( US$225) apiece, claim­ing the fo­liage would turn into Rp.1 bil­lion in cash through the power of prayer and Is­lamic study.

Afandi, who comes from the West Java city of Bo­gor, had first been ar­rested for fraud in 2012. He sub­se­quently rein­vented him­self as an us­tadz – an hon­orific ti­tle for an Is­lamic teacher, not re­quir­ing an ac­tual cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

Rent­ing a house in Tangerang, Ban­ten prov­ince, Afandi com­menced his lat­est get-rich-quick scheme in Novem­ber 2015. He in­vited peo­ple to join a “re­li­gious study group,” promis­ing he could pro­vide them with ven­ture cap­i­tal of Rp.1 bil­lion, but only if they gave him char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions.

For ex­am­ple, if some­one wanted to buy a mo­tor­bike, a car or a house, or start a busi­ness, Afandi would ask them to “do­nate” any­where from Rp.500,000 to Rp.15 mil­lion. In re­turn, the per­son would re­ceive card­board boxes or sealed en­velopes of leaves, to be opened at a later date.

The phony preacher held daily prayer meet­ings, ini­tially at­tract­ing about five peo­ple. By early 2017, he had at least 137 fol­low­ers and had rented the ad­join­ing house to make space for them. Among his flock were peo­ple with chronic ill­nesses, hop­ing for a mir­a­cle cure. There were also busi­ness­peo­ple seek­ing so­lu­tions to fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

All were re­quired to give alms. Some of the fol­low­ers stayed at the houses and re­ceived food pur­chased from their do­na­tions.

Afandi was ar­rested after ten of his fol­low­ers re­ported him to po­lice be­cause their leaves had failed to be­come money, de­spite their solemn prayers. Po­lice swooped on his houses and seized ev­i­dence in­clud­ing 12 cars, six mo­tor­cy­cles, three sacks of leaves, 300 card­board boxes and South Korean ban­knotes amount­ing to 5,000 won (a mere US$4.40 or Rp.56,000).

The con­man had given South Korean money to some of the vic­tims, telling them that bank of­fi­cers would later ex­change it for ru­piah. Afandi also showed pho­to­graphs of money to his devo­tees to “prove” he had lots of cash.

One of the vic­tims, 48-year-old Suhen­dar, spent Rp.15 mil­lion on five use­less boxes of leaves, which he had ex­pected would yield Rp. 5 bil­lion. “[Afandi] said to store them and open them later at the right time; God will­ing they would turn into money. The prom­ise was one box, one bil­lion [ru­piah]," he was quoted as say­ing by de­tik.com.

One un­usual de­tail of the case was that many of the vic­tims had a sticker of Do­rae­mon, a Ja­panese car­toon ro­botic blue cat with­out ears, af­fixed to their cars. Po­lice could not ex­plain the sig­nif­i­cance of the stick­ers.

Lo­cals said most the fol­low­ers were “out­siders” from other neigh­bour­hoods. The vil­lage chief was aware that Afandi’s house was of­ten crowded with vis­i­tors but he sus­pected noth­ing sus­pi­cious be­cause from the out­side it seemed like harm­less re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity.

De­spite Afandi mis­us­ing Is­lam for fraud amid height­ened re­li­gious ten­sions, no demon­stra­tions de­mand­ing jail time have yet oc­curred.

Po­lice said Afandi could face up to 20 years be­hind bars if con­victed of fraud and money laun­der­ing.

Buck­ets of money

This is not the first time an In­done­sian con­man has pre­tended to have the power to change leaves into money. Back in 2012, po­lice in Jakarta ar­rested a gang of three men who per­formed a sim­i­lar stunt. They would cruise bud­get ho­tel lob­bies for gullible peo­ple and in­vite them to see a “holy man” trans­form­ing a bucket of leaves into cash.

The bucket would be cov­ered with an Is­lamic prayer cloth, a prayer would be re­cited and sleight of hand re­sulted in money ap­pear­ing at the top of the pile. Fool­ish peo­ple would then buy their own bun­dles of ex­pen­sive leaves, wrapped in prayer cloths to be opened later.

Di­mas Kan­jeng de­nials

Progress has been plod­ding in the case of Taat Prib­adi, a con­man who gave him­self the royal ti­tle of Di­mas Kan­jeng. He was ar­rested in East Java in Septem­ber 2016 on sus­pi­cion of or­der­ing the mur­ders of two as­so­ciates, fi­nan­cial fraud and money laun­der­ing.

He is now on trial for mur­der and fraud at the Krak­saan District Court in Probol­inggo in East Java. State pros­e­cu­tors on Fe­bru­ary 16 rec­om­mended he be sen­tenced to death.

Di­mas em­bez­zled an es­ti­mated Rp.1 tril­lion from peo­ple who be­lieved he could mag­i­cally dou­ble money out of thin air. With vast fi­nan­cial re­sources at his dis­posal, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how harshly he is pun­ished.

Five of his se­cu­rity guards in Fe­bru­ary 2015 mur­dered Is­mail Hi­dayah and then in April 2016 mur­dered Ab­dul Gani be­cause the two had threat­ened to ex­pose the scam. After be­ing ar­rested, the per­pe­tra­tors told po­lice that Di­mas had paid them Rp.320 mil­lion for the sec­ond killing. In March this year, the five were sen­tenced to be­tween 10 and 20 years in jail, whereas pros­e­cu­tors had sought life sen­tences.

Sev­eral of the killers sub­se­quently re­canted when ap­pear­ing as wit­nesses in the trial of Di­mas, in­sist­ing he had no con­nec­tion to the mur­ders. A de­fence lawyer claimed the men had been sub­jected to phys­i­cal vi­o­lence when first in­ter­viewed by po­lice, forc­ing them to ac­cuse Di­mas of com­mis­sion­ing the mur­ders.

While con­men pre­tend­ing to have re­li­gious or su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers are of­ten ex­posed and de­bunked, there are al­ways peo­ple who pre­fer to be­lieve in su­per­nat­u­ral mumbo jumbo, whether it be us­ing psy­chic pow­ers to bend spoons or in­can­ta­tions to change leaves into cash.

Why does su­per­sti­tion pre­vail in an age of sci­ence? Per­haps the strings of po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion are eas­ier to pull when a pop­u­lace is more in­clined to fol­low the su­per­nat­u­ral, rather than ex­er­cise crit­i­cal think­ing.

Afandi was ar­rested after ten of his fol­low­ers re­ported him to po­lice be­cause their leaves had failed to be­come money, de­spite their solemn prayers.

Ken­neth Ye­ung is a Jakarta-based ed­i­tor

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