JAKARTA — A high-profile Indonesian husband and wife have been sentenced to prison for swindling more than 60,000 Muslims out of about $65 million with a scam centered on pilgrimages to Mecca.
A court outside Jakarta on Wednesday handed down a 20-year sentence to Andika Surachman and an 18-year term to his Muslim fashion designer wife, Anniesa Hasibuan. Her sister, Kiki Hasibuan, was sentenced to 15 years over the same scam.
“The defendants … are proven guilty of committing [a] perpetual scam and money laundering,” judges at the court in the city of Depok said in their verdict.
Hasibuan had made a name for herself with an appearance at New York Fashion Week, where she showed collections of Muslim attire that landed her on the Forbes Indonesia list of inspiring women last year. The magazine took her off the list after the scandal broke.
Surachman and Hasibuan are owners of First Travel, an agency that specialized in tour packages for the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, the Islamic holy city in Saudi Arabia. They promoted the trips for 70% of the standard price tag set by Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, and attracted 63,000 would-be pilgrims. But repeated departure delays prompted customers to go to the police, who soon discovered that the couple had been running a Ponzi scheme to finance a lavish lifestyle.
The court found that the couple cheated customers out of 905 billion rupiah ($65.2 million). The money went toward the purchase of a luxury residence outside Jakarta, an investment in a London restaurant, luxury cars and handbags, as well as first-class international travel and Hasibuan’s appearance at New York Fashion Week.
The Financial Services Authority froze First Travel’s business last year, after the complaints piled up.
The case has highlighted the booming business of tours to Mecca. The Hajj, the preeminent annual pilgrimage, will run in August this year, but the Saudi authorities cap the number of pilgrims. Less expensive Umrah pilgrimages, which can be made at any other time of year, have become a popular alternative.
Muslim population growth is driving the increase in demand. The world’s Muslims are projected to number 2.2 billion by 2020, up from 1.7 billion in 2014.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, is reviewing controls on tour operators in the wake of the First Travel scandal. Pilgrims have been a target of fraud on a smaller scale for some time.
Similar problems have surfaced in other countries with large Muslim populations, including Malaysia, Pakistan and India.