School Case Further Hurts Indonesia's Reputation

The scathing international criticism over the April 29 firing squad killings of eight drug mules, is not the only case bringing harsh censure to Indonesia's legal system. Potentially even more damaging is the continuing fallout Indonesia faces from the conclusion of a bizarre trial in the South Jakarta District Court, considered one of the worst judicial panels in one of the world’s most corrupt court systems, that jailed two international school educators for 10 years.

The case involves what critics say are clearly trumped-up child sex abuse charges against educators and janitors from the Jakarta Intercultural School, considered the most prestigious international educational institution in the country. The case is widely believed to be rigged to help a plaintiff win a US$125 million lawsuit against the elite school, where 270 teachers educate 2,400 students from 60 different nationalities, many of them children of elite expatriate and Indonesian business families.

The case has earned international attention from the US, Canadian, Australian and other embassies partly because evidence seems to have been manipulated and partly because of broadly voiced but unproven suspicions that the case is linked to an attempt by real estate interests to close the school and take over hugely valuable land on three campuses in suburban Jakarta. However, sources in Jakarta say the US government is dedicated to keeping the school open and operating in its current location.

“Serious questions have arisen in this case regarding the investigative process and lack of credible evidence against the teachers,” according to a statement by the US Embassy in Jakarta. ”In light of this, we are deeply disappointed with this outcome. We look forward to the next steps in the legal process in which we hope that all the available facts in the case will be considered. We hope that the legal process as guaranteed by the Indonesian Constitution will be implemented in a fair and impartial manner.”

Firing squads and court cases

The country's reputation was hammered abroad by this week's midnight shooting of eight drug mules -- seven if them foreigners -- as they refused blindfolds, faced their killers and sang “Amazing Grace” before being gunned down simultaneously. That outrage compounded growing fallout from the school case, with investors deeply worried about the JIS events and seeing both linked to a faulty legal system. Joko Widodo, who came to the presidency last October amid much promise both domestically and internationally, is fast spending any political capital he had accumulated.

”The outcome of the legal process and what it reveals about the rule of law in Indonesia will have a significant impact on Indonesia’s reputation abroad,” the US embassy statement said.

The international business community, whose families patronize the school, is deeply apprehensive about the reported irregularities and abuses in the case. There are also concerns that a long litany of other actions against the international business community will have a negative impact on potential and actual investors. Investment spending seems to slowing steadily, with foreign direct investment likely to drift downward. A perceived lack of fairness in court cases at many levels -- JIS is not the only dodgy prosecution -- could have a serious impact on the ability to attract quality foreign investment, according to analysts.

Jakarta Intercultural School is regarded as one of the most prestigious expatriate educational institutions in the world. “Fearing unjust accusations and related outcomes, the highly qualified expatriate teachers who have together with their Indonesian colleagues made JIS what it is today may choose to work in other countries rather than Indonesia, resulting in a lack of qualified educational options to properly serve JIS’s students and the diplomatic and expatriate business communities in Indonesia,” according to a prepared statement by the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia.

To say the nature of the evidence is doubtful is an understatement. It began when an unnamed mother claimed that her six-year-old son had contracted herpes from sexual contact with school personnel. However, examination by physicians found no evidence of herpes. The Indonesian woman, who filed the lawsuit against the school, refused to bring the child back for a second examination.

Courtroom oddities

Eventually, however six school janitors were arrested. Two educators, Canadian Neil Bantleman and Ferdinant Tjiong, an Indonesian citizen, were arrested later. In December 2014, four of the janitors were given eight years in prison and a fifth, a woman, was given seven years. The sixth was said to have committed suicide in police custody by drinking bathroom cleanser although many believe he was beaten to death. Bantleman and Tjiong were sentenced to 10 years in prison on April 2. Both have appealed the sentence.

Parents have unequivocally backed both the teachers and the janitors and medical authorities say the rapes never took place. The court excluded medical evidencce that would have cleared the teachers and barred even Canadian diplomatic representatives from the courtroom.

Law enforcement officials interrogated other children, alleging the defendants had a “magic stone” that they could pluck out of the sky that supposedly prevented the children from feeling pain during the sexual assaults. The police, however, have never come up with a drug resembling the so-called stone’s existence. The authorities also allege that the assaults took place in a “secret room” that has never been found.

The mother of one alleged victim charged that the rapes had taken place in a room that was used for filing cabinet storage, and in which the administration staff habitually gathered. However, the room was demolished during renovations that took place before the supposed offenses ever took place. One child alleged he was raped multiple times in an open, heavily populated block with glass walls where such an act would be virtually impossible without being seen, and other children, apparently coached by parents and investigators, said there was a secret underground dungeon at the school.

Bantleman and Tjiong were found guilty of raping three children. After the sentence was read, Bantleman said “we will continue to fight until the truth comes out,” before being led away as cheers and wild applause erupted in the courtroom. He said he would appeal the 10-year sentence.