Jakarta Court Dismisses International School Case

A civil court has dismissed a US$125 million lawsuit launched last year by the mother of a child allegedly sexually assaulted by janitors and members of the teaching staff of the prestigious Jakarta Intercultural School.

The case has been closely watched by representatives of Canada, the United States and Australia, among others, because of a fear that the suit could put the US-backed school, the country’s most respected, out of business. With more than 4,000 students from 60 countries attending the school, its possible loss was regarded as a potential blow to the country’s international competitiveness and a demonstration of the lack of a rational legal system in Indonesia.

An earlier criminal prosecution was widely denounced by diplomats and others and there has been speculation that Indonesian authorities had woken up to the fact that the suit could damage the country’s international reputation.

(Related story: School Case Further Hurts Indonesia’s Reputation)

From the first of the ordeal, which began in July of 2014, the suit has been regarded as specious amid speculation by defense lawyers that both the suit and the criminal charges had been brought to help unknown interests get their hands on the school's extremely valuable property, although there is no public evidence of that. The campus sits on 49 acres in three separate areas in the Jakarta suburbs. The school, the city’s oldest such institution, was formerly known as the Jakarta International School.

The plaintiff who filed the suit has never come forward to testify and has not been named, although her identity is widely known. However, in mid-July, authorities charged OC Kaligis, the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the civil suit against the school, with bribery. Kaligis' previous cases are also said to be under review.

Cleaners and teachers in prison

Among them are the related criminal cases that resulted in convictions against five school janitors over the allegations.

In addition, teachers Neil Bantleman, a Canadian national, and Ferdinant Tjiong, an Indonesian, were also arrested and convicted of sexual assault with three children. Bantleman and Tjiong appealed their convictions but remain in prison on 10-year sentences. The civil ruling may help their appeal. They were also each ordered to pay RP100 million (US$7,700) in fines.

In December 2014, four of the janitors were given eight years in prison and a fifth, a woman, was given seven. A sixth janitor was said to have committed suicide in police custody by drinking bathroom cleanser although many believe he was beaten to death.

The evidence from the start was considered so baseless as to be fanciful and defense attorneys said it was connected to the lawsuit, filed in the South Jakarta District Court, considered one of the country’s most corrupt. The unnamed woman who brought the case alleged that her six-year-old son had contracted herpes from the sexual encounter. However, after medical personnel found no evidence that the child had herpes or had been molested, the mother refused to allow further tests. The case was later expanded to include several other children as police apparently led them into making statements that were utterly unconnected with reality, including that the teachers possessed a “magic stone” that they could pull from the sky and which made the rapes painless.

Relief in sight?

Harry Ponto, a lawyer representing the school, told reporters that Monday's decision could affect the sentences of the two educators. "Hopefully this case can have a positive impact for our teachers who we believe are innocent," he said.

"If the future of the school is secured then this judgment sends the right message to the foreign investment community going forward," said a spokesman for the American Chamber of Commerce in Jakarta.

In a related action that cast further doubt on the validity of the Jakarta court action, a Singapore high court awarded Bantleman and Tjiong S$130,000 in damages in mid-July in a defamation suit against the unnamed mother of the alleged victim, who never turned up to defend the case. The court also ordered the woman to pay a further S$100,000 to school as well as the principal of its elementary campus. Both had also sued her. The sums were only a fraction of the $7.95 million damages sought by the parties.

The plaintiffs also sought aggravated damages, pointing out that the woman had failed to retract her statements or apologize, and had tried to evade service of papers, among other things. The judge, however turned down the claims of all four parties for special damages, which are usually recoverable for economic loss following injury to their reputation. The school had sought US$2.98 million (S$4.1 million) in special damages for the shortfall in enrollment, allegedly from the adverse publicity over the case.