Two teachers wrongly imprisoned on trumped up charges of child sex abuse have been freed, but five cleaners sentenced over the same case are still languishing in jail. Indonesians have long been swindled out of justice by a judiciary that claims to be impartial but often sides with the rich and powerful.
“Ini negara hukum!” (“This is a nation based on law!”) was a favourite slogan of Indonesian officials during the reign of former dictator Suharto. The phrase was trotted out to justify acts of judicial repression, such as the banning of critical media and the jailing of pro-democracy activists. The witty rejoinder to “ini negara hukum” was “ya, hukum rimba” (“yes, law of the jungle”).
These days, “ini negara hukum” is still uttered by officials and by lawyers of dubious repute. Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, who was dumped two weeks ago as Chief Security Minister, used the phrase after criticizing supporters of the respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) as “absurd”. He was viewed as supporting the National Police’s revenge attacks against the KPK leaders, who were forced to step down and faced legal action after naming a senior police officer a corruption suspect.
Indonesian Child Protection Commission (KPAI) secretary general Erlinda uttered “ini negara hukum” last year when demanding that Jakarta International School (JIS) be punished for “serious violations”.
The legal woes of JIS – which was renamed Jakarta Intercultural School at the end of 2014 in line with an Education Ministry decree banning schools from calling themselves international – stemmed from March 2014. That’s when the mother of a kindergarten student complained that six cleaners at the school had twice sexually assaulted her son in a bathroom in January and February – or in February and March – depending on which police report you read.
Upon hearing the news, most people assumed it was true. Revelations that an American who taught at JIS from 1992 to 2002, William James Vahey, was a notorious child molester – only furthered the public perception that JIS was tarnished by paedophiles.
The six arrested cleaners were males Azwar, Virgiawan Amin, Zainal Abidin, Syahrial and Agun Iskandar, and female Afrischa Setyani. Police claimed Azwar committed suicide on April 26 by drinking Porstex – a malodorous floor cleaning liquid containing hydrochloric acid – in a police bathroom after undergoing almost seven hours of interrogation. He was buried quickly without an autopsy. The other male cleaners later testified that Azwar had been beaten severely by police. Lawyers for the male cleaners said police had also beaten their clients, pointed guns at their heads and tortured them until they confessed.
In December 2014, the surviving male cleaners were sentenced to eight years in jail, while Afrischa – who never confessed – was sentenced to seven years.
It was evident that police and the notoriously corrupt South Jakarta District Court were keen to make trouble for JIS. There have been occasional reports of teachers at Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) raping students but not going to jail. Jakarta’s rumour mills have it that a powerful tycoon with strong police connections wanted to shut down JIS in order to take over its valuable real estate in South Jakarta.
The Education and Culture Ministry in April 2014 ordered JIS to shut down its kindergarten for operating without an appropriate permit. Meanwhile, the mother at the centre of the allegations demanded the entire school be closed down permanently. She had initially tried to sue JIS for $12.5 million, but when she realised the school was not legally responsible for the outsourced cleaners, she changed her strategy. She claimed that Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman and assistant teacher Ferdinant Tjiong had also abused her son. She also persuaded two other parents to make complaints against the teachers, and increased her compensation demand to $125 million.
The subsequent trials were a sham and off-limits to the public and the media. Judges, led by Nuraslam Bustaman, overlooked the lack of physical evidence and in April 2015 sentenced the teachers to 10 years in jail for abusing three boys.
One of the lawyers representing the mother was O.C. Kaligis, who was arrested last month for allegedly bribing three judges at Medan State Administrative Court in North Sumatra. When JIS tried to reopen its kindergarten and counter legal charges last year, Kaligis declared, “This is a nation based on law, there cannot be any playing around.” Yeah, right.
The verdicts against the teachers were widely criticized, including by the US ambassador, the British Embassy and the Canadian Government. Bantleman’s family filed a defamation case in Singapore against the mother as she had made the initial allegations of abuse while there. On July 16, Singapore High Court ruled the mother had committed defamation and later ordered her to pay S$130,000 in damages to Bantleman and Tjiong, and S$100,000 to JIS. Then, on August 14, the two teachers were released from East Jakarta’s Cipinang jail after Jakarta High Court overturned their conviction.
Most people who fall afoul of the capricious Indonesian legal system do not have strong networks of legal and international support. Even if they do have support, they may not be released as quickly as foreigners. This was evidenced in Papua last year, when two French journalists were arrested in August for violating the Immigration Law because they were on tourist visas while making a documentary on separatism. The pair spent just two months and 15 days in jail, whereas the man they had been interviewing, Areki Wanimbo, head of the Lani Besar Tribal Council, spent nine months in detention on tenuous accusations of conspiracy to commit treason. According to Papuans Behind Bars, a local human rights group, at least 47 Papuan political prisoners remain detained, many allegedly having suffered arbitrary arrest, torture and unfair trials.
The Suharto regime set the template for wrongful arrests and imprisonment. This was highlighted by the cases of Marsinah and Udin. Marsinah was a 25-year-old worker at a watch factory in Sidoarjo, East Java. She was involved in a March 1993 strike for minimum wage and menstrual leave. The local district military command interrogated and fired 13 of the strike’s leaders. Marsinah went to the district command to complain. Her body was found three days later. She had been beaten, tortured and raped to death. Prosecutors and police did not dare to blame the Army for the murder, but instead jailed the factory’s owner, managers and guards, all of whom were later exonerated and released.
In 1996, journalist Fuad Muhammad Syafruddin, better known as Udin, wrote an article alleging the Regent of Bantul in Yogyakarta, Sri Roso Sudarmo, had paid a bribe of Rp.2 billion to Suharto’s Dharmais Foundation in order to be re-elected. Udin was bashed in front of his house and died three days later. Police refused to arrest the killer or the Regent. Instead, they chose a scapegoat, Dwi Sumaji, plied him with alcohol, tricked him into signing a confession and concocted a case against him so ludicrous that it was eventually thrown out of court.
The killers of Marsinah and Udin have never been brought to justice, but as long as higher courts keep overturning the sham verdicts of lower courts, there remains hope that Indonesia may one day truly become a “negara hukum”.