Indonesian Supreme Court Nixes Acquittal of International School Teachers

Indonesia’s Supreme Court has overturned the acquittal of two teachers, a Canadian and an Indonesian, convicted of sexually abusing students at Jakarta’s most prestigious international school and ordered them to serve out their original 10-year sentence plus an extra year.

The reason for the decision Thursday, Feb. 25, appears to be a mystery, although local media reported Supreme Court Judge Suhadi as saying the panel of judges ruled that the legal considerations taken by the trial court, the South Jakarta District Court, had been appropriate.

The reversal dismayed foreign observers, diplomats and others in Jakarta. The pair had been freed on appeal in August and legal observers denounced the original trial as inept or rigged. The proceeding was widely viewed as undermining confidence in the rule of law in Indonesia.

In an email to parents, the school said it was "deeply saddened" by the rearrest of teachers Neil Bantleman and Ferdinant Tjiong after the Supreme Court sided with prosecutors. "We are shocked and dismayed by this unexpected turn of events," the school said. "As before, we will do all we can to ensure that they will be safe when they are in custody. We are pursuing all legal channels to overturn this decision through a judicial review, and we believe that justice will eventually prevail."

As of Thursday, both men were in police custody, with armed officers having raided Tjiong's home at 2 am, rousting the family from bed and taking the teaching assistant away "like they were dealing with a dangerous criminal," in the words of his wife, Sisca. Bantleman surrendered to police later in the day, according to press reports.

A judicial review of the decision is the last step in the appeals process and lawyers have said they will file one soon.

Winding road

The long-running case attracted widespread international criticism because of the bizarre nature of the charges against Bantleman, the Canadian, and Tjiong, the Indonesian. There is a widespread belief that the case was pursued in an effort to discredit the Jakarta Intercultural School, which sits on some of the most valuable land in Jakarta and could be subject to efforts by unnamed property developers to close it and take the land.

As the case moved from the notoriously corrupt South Jakarta District Court to the appellate court, it caught the attention of the US, Canadian, Australian and other embassies partly because evidence seems to have been manipulated and partly because of broadly voiced but unproven suspicions over the real estate situation.

On publication of the decision today, US Ambassador Robert O. Blake issued a terse statement saying the US is “shocked and disappointed by the decision announced by the Supreme Court ... It is not clear what evidence the Supreme Court used to overturn the High Court’s decision. The international community continues to closely follow this case.”

The outcome of the legal process, Blake said, “will impact international views about the rule of law in Indonesia.”

Attempts to reach lawyers for the two were unsuccessful. However, the case is certain to cast a shadow on efforts by President Joko Widodo to convince the international business community that it is possible to get rational decisions out of the courts.

Wide repercussions

The case has sent shudders through the international community because of the possibility that the school, with 2,400 students and 270 teachers, could be shuttered. In 2014, a parent filed a US$125 million lawsuit against the school, which was dismissed by a Jakarta court last year. The mother who brought the suit has never come publicly forward; her son was examined by doctors after the alleged incident and no medical evidence of rape was found. That evidence was barred at trial.

The acquittal last August by an appellate court came amid stinging diplomatic pressure led by the United States, whose business community sends the largest number of students to the 60-year-old school. However, the two were not allowed to leave the country while prosecutors appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Business interests have told Asia Sentinel that the school is an important factor in Indonesia’s attempts to draw foreign investment. It is also patronized by the children of wealthy Indonesians.

The court system, except for the special court that has jurisdiction over the Corruption Eradication Commission, is regarded as almost irretrievably corrupt, with cases frequently prosecuted and adjudicated on the basis of bribes to the courts. According to the Gallup polling organization, eight of 10 Indonesians describe the court system as hopelessly bent.

Thus there is a common belief that the decision against the two had nothing to do with the evidence and everything to do with pressures from unknown interests.

As to the actual evidence, there appears nothing that would stand up in a rational court system. Five janitors were also arrested during the investigation and four have been sentenced to long prison terms. One of the five was said to have committed suicide in custody although there are serious suspicions that he was beaten to death. All five are believed to have been beaten by police into confessions of complicity, a common practice in Indonesia.

After extensive questioning by police, one child testified 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.

"This is ridiculous, a complete travesty," said a source who investigated the initial charges. "This case has absolutely no merit."