Canadian goes on trial in Indonesia, accused of sexually assaulting kids at international school

Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman (right) and co-accused teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong (centre) being escorted by a policeman as they arrive at the South Jakarta court in Jakarta on Dec 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman (right) and co-accused teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong (centre) being escorted by a policeman as they arrive at the South Jakarta court in Jakarta on Dec 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (AFP) - A Canadian man, together with an Indonesian teaching assistant, went on trial on Tuesday accused of sexually assaulting children at one of Indonesia's most prestigious international schools, the most high-profile court case yet in a long-running scandal.

Scores of banner-waving supporters were outside court as Neil Bantleman arrived to face accusations he committed abuse at the Jakarta International School (JIS), an offence punishable by up to 15 years' jail.

"We are innocent," the 46-year-old school administrator told journalists from a holding cell at the Jakarta court before his trial started behind closed doors.

The Indonesian teaching assistant at the school, Ferdinand Tjiong, also went on trial on Tuesday at the same court accused of child abuse. Both men, who have been in police custody since mid-July, deny the allegations.

As he entered court, Tjiong said: “I have come here to prove the truth, to end this slander.”

“It’s hard to believe that this case has managed to get this far,” the Canadian’s wife Tracy Bantleman told AFP outside court, adding that the allegations against her husband were “ridiculous” and “illogical”.

The crisis at the school, which began in April with claims that cleaning staff raped a nursery school boy, has rocked an institution favoured by expatriates and wealthy Indonesians in the capital for more than 60 years.

Since the first allegation, the scandal has snowballed, with more parents making abuse claims and the revelation that a suspected serial paedophile sought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation had taught at the school for a decade.

The school has vehemently denied that Bantleman or Tjiong have committed any crimes, and the case has sparked anger among the expatriate community who send their children to the school, many of whom believe the accusations are false.

"They are the victims of slander, we are 1,000 per cent sure. If they were really paedophiles, we would be the first to know," said Mr Maya Lestari, who has two children at the school and was coordinating the rally outside court.

The family of one nursery school boy allegedly abused are suing the school and seeking US$125 million (S$163 million) in damages.

The first trials in the scandal began in August, when five cleaners faced charges of child sex abuse. However, several of the cleaners who originally confessed have since recanted, claiming they were beaten by the police. Their trials are ongoing.

At the South Jakarta District Court on Tuesday, Bantleman appeared in a courtroom and a judge said the trial was getting under way but then ordered it closed to the public.

He faces two charges under Indonesian child protection laws, one of which carries a maximum jail term of 15 years, according to a charge sheet seen by AFP.

The crowd of about 60 supporters outside the court mostly consisted of foreign and Indonesian mothers of children at the school.

They wore T-shirts saying "Free Neil and Ferdi", and waved banners that read "Reject the invented JIS case" and "Do not sacrifice innocent people".