The Jakarta Intercultural School sex abuse scan­dal?

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - PAUL MIL­LAR

Con­victed of child sex abuse in a sur­real trial, seven school em­ploy­ees con­tinue to lan­guish in prison for a crime that many be­lieve they did not com­mit. And with a ju­di­cial re­view drag­ging on, it has fallen to a group of on­line ac­tivists to try to clear the names of the men still locked up in an In­done­sian prison

Be­fore he raped them, the court was told, Cana­dian teacher Neil Bantle­man would reach into the sky and draw forth a magic stone from some space un­seen by hu­man eyes. Clutch­ing it tight in his hand, he would force it into the anuses of the chil­dren, strip­ping them of the power to feel pain, or hurt, or any­thing other than the sure and ad­mis­si­ble knowl­edge that they had been vi­o­lated.

This was just one of the sur­real al­le­ga­tions that led to Bantle­man, along with In­done­sian teach­ing as­sis­tant Fer­di­nant Tjiong and five lo­cal clean­ing staff em­ployed at the pres­ti­gious Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS), be­ing charged with child sex abuse in 2015 fol­low­ing a high-pro­file case that was met with in­ter­na­tional out­cry amid al­le­ga­tions of forced con­fes­sions and wide­spread cor­rup­tion. A sixth cus­to­dial worker, An­war, who was ar­rested with his col­leagues on sus­pi­cion of gang rape of the three mi­nors, died in po­lice cus­tody af­ter al­legedly drink­ing bleach. His body, when it was re­leased to his fam­ily, showed signs of bruis­ing and punc­ture marks that looked as though his lips had been sta­pled shut. The five other clean­ing staff would later re­cant their con­fes­sions, claim­ing that po­lice had beaten them out of them. But de­spite a High Court de­ci­sion over­turn­ing the sen­tence the fol­low­ing year for the two teach­ers, a sub­se­quent Supreme Court rul­ing over just two days re­versed the re­prieve, con­demn­ing Bantle­man and Tjiong to 11 years in a top-se­cu­rity prison.

Fauzan Luthsa, a found­ing mem­ber of Kawan8 – ‘friends of the eight’ – a group of young In­done­sians fight­ing to raise aware­ness of the case, is one of a num­ber of ac­tivists who have taken up the cause of the men con­victed of a crime they al­most cer­tainly didn’t com­mit. From or­gan­is­ing flash mobs on the streets of Jakarta to reach­ing out to the next gen­er­a­tion at In­done­sia’s uni­ver­si­ties, Kawan8 has used a com­bi­na­tion of con­certed ac­tion and so­cial me­dia out­reach – not to be un­der­es­ti­mated in the

so-called Twit­ter cap­i­tal of the world – to chal­lenge the gar­bled and of­ten bizarre ev­i­dence used to con­vict the men.

Speak­ing to South­east Asia Globe from In­done­sia, Luthsa said that de­spite the over­whelm­ing pub­lic sup­port for a con­vic­tion dur­ing the orig­i­nal trial, the facts of the case just didn’t stack up.

“The rule of law is not as es­tab­lished in In­done­sia as in the US or the UK,” he said. “And we be­lieve that, in In­done­sia, pub­lic opin­ion is one of the most pow­er­ful things that can in­flu­ence cases like this. At that time, In­done­sia had had many cases about pae­dophiles – and peo­ple were scared. So when this case went pub­lic, the peo­ple just thought: ‘Ah, they must be guilty.’”

Luthsa cited ev­i­dence from med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions con­ducted by mul­ti­ple doc­tors shortly af­ter the al­le­ga­tions were made that found on the three chil­dren no signs of the phys­i­cal trauma nor­mally present on vic­tims of gang rape – nor, in fact, the pres­ence of her­pes, a highly con­ta­gious sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted disease that four of the clean­ers had tested pos­i­tive for. The pros­e­cu­tion sup­pressed these find­ings dur­ing the ini­tial crim­i­nal trial. Tes­ti­mony from a self-pro­claimed “sex­ol­o­gist” that Bantle­man al­legedly didn’t mas­tur­bate – a fact that had ap­par­ently come out dur­ing a bizarre in­ter­ro­ga­tion – was also sub­mit­ted to the court as ev­i­dence of likely sex­ual perver­sion, though the sex­ol­o­gist later claimed his find­ings had been twisted to jus­tify a con­vic­tion.

It was a scan­dal that would en­thral the whole na­tion and gen­er­ate a mul­ti­tude of in­ter­na­tional head­lines. The pros­e­cu­tion’s case – which hinged on the of­ten-con­flict­ing tes­ti­monies of three kinder­garten­ers – al­leged that a ring of pae­dophiles within the school had reg­u­larly pulled the three chil­dren out of class to abuse them in a num­ber of pub­lic lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing a room with four com­pletely trans­par­ent walls. The mother of one of the al­leged vic­tims – who had launched a sep­a­rate law­suit against the school seek­ing $125m in dam­ages, up from an ini­tial bid of a tenth of that amount be­fore the case had gained wider pub­lic­ity – also ac­cused the school prin­ci­pal of par­tic­i­pat­ing in, and even film­ing, the gang rapes be­fore abruptly with­draw­ing her al­le­ga­tions. The suit was re­jected by the judge due to a lack of any con­crete de­tails about when the abuse was sup­posed to have oc­curred.

A defama­tion case launched by the school be­fore the Sin­ga­pore High Court or­dered a dif­fer­ent mother, who had spear­headed the ac­cu­sa­tions and who the de­fence re­peat­edly ac­cused of be­ing mo­ti­vated by her own fi­nan­cial gain, to pay hun­dreds of thou­sands in dam­ages to Bantle­man, Tjiong and the school.

De­spite this, the two ed­u­ca­tors re­main in a shared cell in­side the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity Cip­inang Pen­i­ten­tiary In­sti­tu­tion. Speak­ing to In­done­sia Ex­pat in 2016, Bantle­man’s wife, Tracy, said that prison was tak­ing a toll on her hus­band. “Neil is demon­strat­ing great pa­tience and re­silience, but be­ing in­side prison for a crime you did not com­mit and hav­ing to see your fam­ily, friends and the com­mu­nity suf­fer so greatly is a heavy bur­den,” she said.

For Luthsa, vis­it­ing the con­victed men was an es­sen­tial part of Kawan8’s sup­port for their cause. “We don’t come as lawyers, we say to them: ‘We’re just civil­ians, and we sup­port you be­cause we know you are in­no­cent,’” he said. “It gives them courage, and they know they are not alone in this case.” Bantle­man’s fam­ily de­clined to speak to South­east Asia Globe pend­ing an on­go­ing ju­di­cial re­view.

Luthsa said the wide­spread be­lief that staff at one of Jakarta’s most pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional schools had been ha­bit­u­ally prey­ing on vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren had trumped any amount of ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

“Pub­lic opin­ion was so high, and it put a lot of pres­sure on the judges,” Luthsa said. “And that’s not fair – that’s seven peo­ple in jail, not be­cause of proof, but be­cause of pub­lic opin­ion.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice-chair­man of the Se­tara In­sti­tute for Democ­racy and Peace, the JIS case re­flected deep-seated short­com­ings within the na­tion’s ju­di­cial sys­tem.

“This is still one of our chal­lenges in In­done­sia – the in­de­pen­dence of the ju­di­ciary,” he said. “We’ve seen not only the case of what hap­pened with Jakarta Intercultural School, but also other cases where we’ve doubted the cred­i­bil­ity of the de­ci­sions. And there are a num­ber of ex­ter­nal fac­tors that in­flu­ence those de­ci­sions – po­lit­i­cal pres­sure, pres­sure from the crowds, bias, prej­u­dice based on re­li­gion or race or for­eign-pho­bia.”

Forced to change its name and cur­ricu­lum in 2014 fol­low­ing in­dus­try-wide pres­sure from the govern­ment, JIS is not the only in­ter­na­tional school in In­done­sia to see de­clin­ing rates of ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ing staff as new op­por­tu­ni­ties for ed­u­ca­tors open up in once-closed-off coun­tries such as China and Viet­nam. De­spite this, North Jakarta Intercultural School ad­min­is­tra­tor Ge­orge Tze­mentsis told free­lance jour­nal­ist Angela Jelita that the JIS case had left the in­dus­try shaken.

“We saw Neil Bantle­man be­ing pulled into a court­room with­out any prob­a­ble cause,” he said. “This could hap­pen to any­body and you’d be done; no­body can help you.”

Although a ju­di­cial re­view into the case is on­go­ing, the prop­sect of In­done­sia’s ju­di­cial sys­tem fi­nally cor­rect­ing a li­tany of fail­ures through­out the trial seems a dis­tant one. For Luthsa, what drives him and his fel­low ac­tivists is the hope that when the ac­cused are fi­nally re­leased, they will be re­ceived by a com­mu­nity that views them not as vic­timis­ers, but vic­tims.

“We be­lieve they will be re­leased soon from jail,” he said. “And we speak out in the hope that they will not get so­cial pun­ish­ment from so­ci­ety when they are re­leased from prison. I think it’s im­por­tant for them and for their fam­ily – and we also show that we know they are in­no­cent.”

We be­lieve that, in In­done­sia, pub­lic opin­ion is one of the most pow­er­ful things that can in­flu­ence cases like this

Neil Bantle­man, who was charged with the sex­ual abuse of stu­dents at the pres­ti­giousJakarta Intercultural School

Neil Bantle­man and co-ac­cused teach­ing as­sis­tant Fer­di­nant Tjiong (L) ar­riv­ing at the South Jakarta court (top); Neil Bantle­man’s glass-walled of­fice, one of the places he was al­leged to have abused chil­dren at the Jakarta Intercultural School (bot­tom)

Tracy Bantle­man, wife of Neil Bantle­man, is com­forted by sup­port­ers as she lis­tens to her hus­band’s ver­dict hear­ing in Jakarta in April 2015 (top); a poster call­ing for the re­lease of Neil Bantle­man and Fer­di­nant Tjiong (bot­tom)

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