By: Our Correspondent

Two Jakarta-based educators who were found guilty in April in a bizarre case charging them with repeatedly abusing kindergarten students sexually were freed on appeal Friday, August 14, by the Jakarta high court.

A Canadian teacher, Neil Bantleman and an Indonesian teaching assistant, Ferdinand Tjiong, were sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined Rp100 million in April by the notoriously corrupt South Jakarta District Court after a trial that involved clearly specious evidence.  The case gained widespread notoriety outside of Indonesia because of its blatant unfairness and the important role the school they work for plays in the international business and diplomatic community in Indonesia.

“I want to say thank you to you all for believing in us,” said Bantleman after walking out of a Jakarta prison. His family says it is working to get him back to Canada.

“This is very good news for us,” Jakarta Intercultural School head Tim Carr said in a note to the school community. “The lawyers and families are now working through the necessary paperwork to release [them] from prison.”

Somebody finally woke up

The reversal of the guilty verdict had been widely expected after a civil court on August 10 threw out 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 school, the country’s oldest and most respected institution for international students. The criminal prosecution had been denounced by diplomats and others – many of whom send their children to the school.

There is considerable speculation that Indonesian authorities belatedly awakened to the fact that the suit, believed to have been generated or manipulated on behalf of an unnamed but extremely powerful real estate tycoon seeking to get his hands on the valuable school property in South Jakarta, was harming the country’s reputation with international investors.

The decision freeing the two men came about after rumored urging by the office of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to the judiciary to decide the case on its merits. It was greeted with quiet relief by diplomats and the business community.

The case was regarded as a bellwether of anti-foreign sentiment in the country. The judge who tried the original criminal case was openly hostile to foreigners, barred diplomats from the courtroom and erupted in frequent outbursts against foreign influence. The original conviction was seen as a prelude to the civil case and it was widely believed a judgment was rushed to try and pressure the civil case to be decided against the school.

“This is not the time to celebrate or speak out,” said one foreign business leader. “We do not want to embarrass anyone. We are just glad this finally came out the right way.”

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 out of business. With more than 4,000 students from 60 countries, 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.

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

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

The school is continuing to pursue the release of the cleaning staff, who worked for a third-party vendor. That company was not named or charged, another anomaly in a case full of inexplicable twists.

The evidence from the start was considered so baseless as to be fanciful. The unnamed woman, the Indonesian wife of a foreign national, 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.

In a related action that cast further doubt on the validity of the Jakarta court action, a Singaporean high court awarded Bantleman and Tjiong S$130,000 in damages in mid-July in a defamation suit against the unnamed mother of another alleged victim, who never turned up to defend the case in Singapore. 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.

Indonesian authorities were not immediately available for comment. The US Embassy in Jakarta, which had taken a keen interest in the case, issued a statement following the ruling.

“The United States welcomes the decision of the Jakarta High Court to acquit the two Jakarta Intercultural School teachers Neil Bantleman and Ferdinand Tjiong,” US Ambassador Robert O. Blake said in the statement. “The rule of law and an independent judiciary are vital components of any democratic system, and we appreciate the fairness and prudence shown by Jakarta’s appeals court.”

The school was to hold a vigil on Friday to welcome the ruling in the name of justice.