JAKARTA, Indonesia – The man at the center of Indonesia's most closely watched corruption scandal was supposed to be behind bars.
Instead, Gayus Tambunan was photographed at a tennis tournament on the resort island of Bali, clumsily disguised in a black wig and glasses. In the days that followed, police accused wardens of accepting bribes of up to $40,000 so he could regularly leave his cell during the course of his trial.
The case — which has dominated Indonesian newscasts, headlines and social networking sites for more than a week — has touched nerves like few others in the sprawling nation of 237 million.
That's because, more than a decade after the collapse of Gen. Suharto's 32-year dictatorship, many believe the greatest threat to democratization and development is not terrorism, a weak education system, poor infrastructure or even poverty.
"It's graft," said Agung Kumoroyekti, a 32-year-old computer salesman who is not alone in thinking Indonesia should follow the lead of China and punish the worst offenders with death.
"Otherwise nothing will change in this country," he said. "If you're rich or powerful, you'll always be able to do what you want."
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who became the first directly elected leader in 2004, has made fighting Indonesia's reputation of being one of the world's most graft-ridden countries a top priority.
But the body set up to do just that has been beset by scandals of its own — some allegedly fabricated by tainted police, businessmen and politicians to undermine its credibility — and high-ranking officials have largely been left alone.
Even so, Tambunan, a midlevel tax official with a salary of just $1,300 a month, has turned out to be a dream for a frustrated public and corruption watchdogs.
Tambunan, 31, who had been tasked with addressing tax-related complaints, is charged with pocketing at least $2.7 million from dozens of big companies to help them avoid paying taxes, said Pia Nasution, his lawyer.
He's also accused of bribing law enforcers in an embezzlement case earlier this year to make sure he was acquitted.
Each new allegation at his trial, now in its fifth month, has cast a wider shadow on top government officials, police and the judiciary, showing just how deeply entrenched the problem is in the country, which remains desperately poor despite its abundant natural resources.
Most people earn less than $300 a month.
"Thank you Gayus!" people wrote on Twitter. And Facebook lit up with comments like "You're a hero! Hopefully people will get sick of corruption because of you!"
Tambunan broke into tears Monday when he admitted in a hearing at the South Jakarta District Court that yes, he was the wigged man captured by photographers at the international tennis match on Nov. 5.
"I never thought my leave would trigger such a major controversy," he said, adding that he often saw high-profile detainees coming and going from his detention center just outside the capital and figured that was just how things were done.
Police said they were investigating his latest claims.
"I simply wanted to see my family," said Tambunan, who was surrounded by relatives at the match. "I wanted a vacation."
The National Police spokesman, Maj. Gen. Iskandar Hasan, said nine wardens have been arrested and face charges of accepting up to $40,000 from the tax official. Tambunan allegedly left the jail at least 60 times since his detention in April.
That — coupled with reports that he flew his family to Bali and spent two nights at a five-star hotel — has raised new questions about whether he still has access to any of his alleged ill-gotten gains.
"Of course he does!" seethed Kumoroyekti, the computer salesman. "How could he not?"
This is the second time Tambunan has faced trial this year after being initially acquitted of embezzling the $2.7 million in March.
But former police investigator Gen. Susno Duadji, himself now in jail, said Tambunan bribed him and his officers — as well as judges, lawyers and prosecutors — to present a weaker case to the court.
Soon after, Tambunan fled to Singapore, but he returned almost immediately to face more serious charges of money laundering and corruption.
Police are now investigating an additional $8.3 million seized from safe deposit boxes at several of his banks.
If found guilty he could face 20 years in jail.
Pamuji, a 22-year-old street vendor who uses only one name, hopes the law comes down hard on Tambunan, but everything she has seen in the last week only makes her more pessimistic.
"If you're poor and get caught pick-pocketing, you'll be chased down by a mob and badly beaten," she said, shaking her head. "I guess if you steal enough money, like him, you can do what you want!"