Grave International Concern over Jakarta School Case

In April, the mother of a 5-year-old kindergartner at Jakarta Intercultural School, the city’s most prestigious school for expatriate children and one of the most highly regarded in Asia, charged that her son had been sodomized repeatedly in a school bathroom by janitors.

The case, which is universally regarded as specious, was later expanded to include school personnel who allegedly raped other children. It has sent shudders through the international business community because of the capricious nature of the Indonesian court system and resulted in the possibility that the school, with 2,400 students and 270 teachers, could be closed as a result of a US$125 million lawsuit filed by a parent of the first child.

US Ambassador Robert O. Blake, in a prepared statement, said the international community, foreign investors and foreign governments are following the case very closely and that its outcome “and what it reveals about the rule of law in Indonesia will have a significant impact on Indonesia’s reputation abroad.”

Earlier this week, four of the janitors were given eight years in prison by the South Jakarta District Court for the offense and a fifth, a woman, was given seven years. A sixth janitor was said to have committed suicide in police custody although there are concerns that he was beaten to death.

Neil Bantleman, a Canadian-born school administrator, and Ferdinant Tjiong, a teaching assistant, are now facing charges they raped an additional three children although the evidence is fanciful at best. Parents have unequivocally backed both the teachers and the janitors and medical authorities say the rapes never took place.

The school’s main campus, opened 60 years ago, now stands on some of Jakarta’s most valuable real estate. Unnamed interests in Jakarta are said to covet the 49 acres of property that the school’s three campuses sit on in the event that it is closed as a result of the US$125 million lawsuit. There are deep concerns that the South Jakarta District Court, considered one of the most corrupt in one of Asia’s most corrupt court systems, may want to help them out.

The case has drawn international criticism on charges that the confessions were beaten out of the janitors, who later recanted their statements. Blake called on the Indonesian government to investigate the allegations of torture. The Canadian and Australian embassies have issued statements critical of the charges.

“We have been watching this case with great interest,” Blake said in his statement. “The protection and welfare of children is of utmost importance to educators, law enforcement, to all of us, and all allegations of abuse must be taken seriously. However, we note with concern that the investigative proceedings of both this case, and the accusations against the JIS teachers, raise serious questions about the standards of evidence applied.”

From the first, the case has been regarded as deeply suspicious. The allegations came to light based on a claim by the first boy’s mother, who said her son had contracted herpes after being sodomized in the school bathroom. But laboratory and medical reports submitted to the court found no evidence of the herpes simplex virus. When Nairain Punjabi, the doctor who first examined the boy, asked the mother to bring him back for further tests, she never returned. Nonetheless, she used the inconclusive tests as the basis for a criminal complaint and to file the lawsuit against the school.

John Kevin Baird, a professor at the Center for Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Medicine, who was called as a witness, told the Jakarta Globe that “I was asked by the defense attorneys to review the clinical laboratory evidence in the dossier for prosecuting the JIS cleaners. They asked a simple question: ‘Is there evidence here proving [the boy] has contracted a sexually transmitted infection?” After a thorough technical review, my answer was a simple “No.’”

When Baird told the judges of his findings, he said, he gathered the impression they learned for the first time that they knew the tests used to determine whether the child had herpes were inadequate. Baird told The Globe that he had agreed to testify because “ I felt a moral obligation to do so, despite the risks. My view, based on the clinical laboratory findings, is that the defendants are almost certainly falsely accused. I could not have lived with myself had I declined to testify. That is the truth.”

The evidence trail calls up the tragedy of the specious McMartin preschool trial in California in the 1980s, in which six years of criminal proceedings ended with an acquittal on the basis that the case stemmed from prosecutors coaching the allegedly molested children.

In the Jakarta case, the boys’ testimony includes allegations by one that he was raped multiple times during the school day in an open, heavily populated block with glass walls where such an act would be virtually impossible without being seen. Another allegation was that there was a secret underground dungeon at the school where Bantleman could click his fingers and pluck a “magic stone” out of the sky to anesthetize the boy’s rectum before he was raped.

Other allegations include a female principal videotaping the attack and supplying a “light blue drink” to drug the boy. The boys, however, had never been taught by the teachers and identified them by pointing out their photographs in a school yearbook.