One Convicted, One Cleared: Signs of Trouble in Indonesia Courts
By JOE COCHRANE OCT. 28, 2017
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s troubled legal system is again coming under scrutiny, after rulings in two high-profile cases that have alarmed both Western expatriates and local organizations that fight corruption in the country’s judiciary.
One involves a Canadian educator serving an 11-year term in a high-security prison on charges of sexually assaulting kindergartners at one of the country’s most prestigious international schools — a case the school and the man’s lawyers contend was fabricated.
The other is that of a powerful Indonesian politician who avoided prosecution in a corruption scandal, much to the chagrin of investigators here in one of Asia’s most graft-ridden nations.
The two men have never met, but their legal cases crossed paths on the same day last month, with the outcomes highlighting a system in which rulings often appear to hinge more on incompetence, bribery or public opinion than on facts, according to legal analysts.
“I think the two cases make a strong message that Indonesia still needs reform in the justice system,” said Bivitri Susanti, head of the Jakarta chapter of Indonesia’s Association of Constitutional Law Lecturers. “The reforms must include a legal education system that can produce good, quality law enforcers.”
Late last month, the Indonesian Supreme Court announced that it had rejected an appeal by the Canadian, Neil Bantleman, an administrator at the Jakarta Intercultural School, who along with an Indonesian teaching assistant was convicted in 2015 on charges of sexually assaulting children the year before.
The school, whose students come from more than 60 countries and include the children of Western diplomats and wealthy Indonesians, insists that no children were ever sexually assaulted. That assertion has been backed by the governments of Canada, Britain and the United States, which have repeatedly expressed grave concerns about the competence shown in the legal proceedings. (Mr. Bantleman also holds British citizenship and the school was founded by Americans decades ago.)
The same day that appeal was rejected, a district court judge in Jakarta cleared Setya Novanto, the speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives, as a suspect in the embezzlement of as much as $180 million from a national identity card program, which is being investigated by the country’s independent Corruption Eradication Commission.
In a pretrial hearing, the judge ruled that evidence and testimony against Mr. Setya were inadmissible. The anticorruption agency, popularly known by its Indonesian initials, K.P.K., had gathered the material during the investigations and trials of two government officials.
The two rulings jolted both Westerners and local organizations.
“We have been following the school’s case closely since it began, and its impact has been deeply felt by the foreign business community as a symbol of legal risk in Indonesia,” said A. Lin Neumann, managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia.
“Foreign investors are concerned about the message this sends,” he said. “Quite frankly, the expatriate community had hoped for a better outcome for the teachers and staff caught up in this case.”
Mulya Lubis, a prominent lawyer and chairman of the Indonesia branch of Amnesty International, called the quashing of Mr. Setya’s status as a suspect “an insult to justice.”
“I would expect the judge would take into consideration all the evidence submitted by the K.P.K., because it came from the court proceedings,” Mr. Lubis said. “The people are not wrong if they suspect something in this case.”
Mr. Setya cut his political teeth in the Golkar Party of Suharto, the autocratic president, who by one estimate stole up to $35 billion during his 32-year rule before being toppled by pro-democracy demonstrations in 1998.
Currently Golkar’s chairman, Mr. Setya has been accused but never prosecuted in several corruption scandals. In one notable case in 2015, Mr. Setya was forced to resign as House speaker after an audiotape surfaced that purported to show him trying to extort billions of dollars in shares from the Indonesian unit of the United States mining giant Freeport-McMoRan. He was reinstated as speaker the next year.
In recent weeks, he failed to appear at the anticorruption agency for questioning in the identity card scandal — an appearance that could have led to his detention. Instead, he was said to have been admitted to a hospital with symptoms of vertigo after playing Ping-Pong and then kept for treatment of heart and liver ailments.
Photos of Mr. Setya lying in a hospital bed with breathing tubes were circulated on social media and panned as being faked.
Mr. Setya’s defense team did not reply to phone calls and text messages regarding his medical condition or legal status.
Anticorruption investigators have told reporters that they are considering naming Mr. Setya a suspect again after compiling additional evidence.
Mr. Setya and his party are part of President Joko Widodo’s government, which could create further complications for the anticorruption agency. Its investigators are already embroiled in long-running disputes with the House of Representatives and the National Police because of past prosecutions.
“It’s unjust, and that’s our challenge for the past 20 years and for the next 20 years,” said Erry Riyana Hardjapamekas, a former deputy chairman of the anticorruption agency. “The knowledge of the judges and the legal system itself — at the end of the day, it’s, ‘Let’s talk about money, let’s talk about influence, let’s talk about politics.’”
Mr. Bantleman’s legal options are exhausted unless he applies for clemency from Mr. Joko. But to do so he would have to admit guilt, and he has maintained his innocence.
His ordeal began in 2014, when the parents of a child claimed that janitors at the international school had raped their son in a school bathroom.
Within days, they and other parents claimed that Mr. Bantleman; an Indonesian teaching assistant, Ferdinand Tjiong; and the school’s American principal had drugged and raped students in the school’s administrative offices during classes and that they had videotaped the assaults.
Under intense public pressure, the Indonesian police took the accusations to be true, according to school officials. But no videotapes were ever found, and the Indonesian police did not question any of the employees in the administrative offices, which the school says are full of staff members and students throughout the day.
Five janitors were convicted in December 2014 and sentenced to up to eight years in prison, although they claimed they were tortured into confessing. Another janitor who had been arrested died in police custody under suspicious circumstances.
Though the principal was never detained or charged, Mr. Bantleman and Mr. Tjiong were convicted in April 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The panel of judges presiding over the trial repeatedly dismissed evidence and witness testimony in favor of the defendants, their lawyers say.
Four months later, an Indonesian appeals court overturned the convictions and set them free, seemingly putting an end to the case. But in February 2016, Indonesia’s Supreme Court rejected the appeals court’s ruling, to the dismay of Western embassies here, and sent Mr. Bantleman and Mr. Tjiong back to prison, adding an additional year to their sentences.
Mr. Bantleman’s defense team and family declined to comment on the court’s decision, while the Canadian government said it was “deeply disappointed.”
“Bringing Neil Bantleman home is a top priority for the government of Canada,” said Austin Jean, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, which handles most foreign diplomacy.