Citibank Collection Agents Implicated In Debtor’s Death | August 18, 2011
By Christopher Maag

A businessman arrived at a Citibank office in Indonesia to pay his debts. Hours later, a family friend found him sprawled on the floor of a Citibank interrogation room with his nose bleeding, bruises on his head and abdomen, and foam in his mouth.

The businessman, Irzen Octa, died. Octa also was the chief of a small political party in Jakarta, Indonesia. Now Citibank finds itself in the center of a massive scandal in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, over the massive American bank’s handling of outside contractors hired to collect debts in Citibank’s name.

“He was definitely murdered at the scene,” said Tubagus Surya, the friend who discovered Octa lying lifeless in the Citibank office, according to the Jakarta Post, an English language newspaper in Indonesia.

How Could This Happen?

What had begun as a $5,700 debt on his Citibank credit card ballooned to more than $11,000 over the course of the several year-period during which Octa stopped paying the card. On March 28, the 50-year-old rode his motorcycle to an office tower in downtown Jakarta, where he planned to negotiate with Citibank employees about a reduction in the debt and a payment plan to pay off the rest, Octa’s widow told the Washington Post.

But instead of a negotiation, Octa was interrogated. Exactly what happened inside Citibank’s “Cleo Interrogation Room” is unknown. The meeting was led by three debt collectors hired by Citibank as outside contractors, according to the Jakarta Post. More than two hours later, a security camera recorded Octa being pushed out of the room in a wheelchair, either unconscious or already dead.

The contractors admit that the meeting was contentious, but deny striking Octa.

“Our clients tapped [Octa's] shoulder and also banged the table during the negotiations,” an attorney for the contractors, Wirawan Adnan, told reporters during a press conference in Jakarta.

Surya disputes that, saying that when he found his friend lying on the floor, Octa was not breathing, he had blood under his nose, and his hand was bruised. Surya also told local reporters that he saw fresh blood on curtains and a wall inside the room.

“He was clearly not interviewed but tortured,” Tugabus told the Washington Post.

An autopsy performed the day of the incident made the incident appear even more suspicious. A forensic doctor with the University of Indonesia, Ade Firmansyah, performed the autopsy, but filed two separate reports. In the first, the cause of death was listed as asphyxiation and a “strike form a blunt instrument.” In the second, the death was the result of a brain hemorrhage.

Firmansyah signed both autopsy reports on March 29 at 6:35 p.m., the Jakarta Post reports.

Citibank’s Conflicted Response

After the incident, police investigated the scene in Citibank’s office. But that investigation happened on the fourth floor of the office tower, the Octa family’s lawyer told the Jakarta Post; the incident happened on the fifth floor.

Meanwhile, Citibank wrote off Octa’s debts. The bank also offered to pay his widow a monthly stipend, and to pay for the education of Octa’s two daughters. The family refused, and is suing in civil court for $351 million.

So far, Citibank has skipped two court hearings to defend itself against the lawsuit, the Jakarta Post reports. The bank didn’t show due to “technical issues,” Citibank’s lawyer, Otto Hasibuan, told a reporter with the Jakarta Post via text message.

While Citibank has offered condolences to Octa’s family, its refusal to apologize has angered many politicians in Indonesia, where the scandal has been front-page news for almost five months. Hasibuan offered this explanation: “You only offer an apology if you are guilty. We do not feel guilty,” the Jakarta Post reported.

The scandal has grown so big that Citibank flew its vice chairman, Lewis B. Kaden, to Jakarta in May to say that the bank is “deeply saddened” by Octa’s “sudden and unexpected death,” which is “being treated with the utmost seriousness by our senior management.”

Some Remedies Already In Place

Bank regulators in Indonesia are not waiting for results of the civil trial to punish Citibank. Bank Indonesia ordered Citibank to stop using outside debt collectors for the next two years. In the scandal’s wake, Citibank has hired 1,400 in-house debt collectors. The move “reflects our commitment to providing a better service to our customers,” Shariq Mukhtar, chief of Citibank operations in Indonesia, said in a statement to the Jakarta Post.