Jakarta court overturns sex abuse convictions against international school staff, frees them

Freed Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong (left) and Canadian school administrator Neil Bantleman (2nd from right) are joined by their wives Fransiska Tjiong and Tracy Bantleman and hold hands outside Jakarta's Cipinang prison on Aug 14, 2
Freed Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong (left) and Canadian school administrator Neil Bantleman (2nd from right) are joined by their wives Fransiska Tjiong and Tracy Bantleman and hold hands outside Jakarta's Cipinang prison on Aug 14, 2015 following their release from jail. Mr Bantleman, who also holds British nationality, and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong were jailed for 10 years each in April and ordered to pay a hefty fine after being found guilty of abusing three young children.PHOTO: AFP
Canadian school administrator Neil Bantleman (left) and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong in a holding cell.
Canadian school administrator Neil Bantleman (left) and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong in a holding cell. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (AFP) - A Canadian and an Indonesian jailed for sexual abuse at a prestigious Jakarta international school were freed after their convictions were overturned, a lawyer said on Friday, in a case criticised as riddled with legal errors.

The Indonesian court overturned convictions against the duo, where they were jailed for 10 years each, for sexual abuse at the school.

School administrator Neil Bantleman hugged and kissed his wife Tracy, who could not stop crying, as he walked out of the prison gates, and told a scrum of supporters and journalists: “Everybody, thank you for your support.”

“I’m elated,” said Mrs Tracy Bantleman. Mr Bantleman, a British national, was jailed with Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong in April after they were found guilty of abusing three young children.

Mr Bantleman said he had no idea that he would be released until early Friday.

As the men walked free, a small group of sobbing supporters yelled their names.

Mr Tjiong – who was carrying his young daughter – said: “I thank God because the truth still exists in Indonesia. I hope this will never happen again.”

They embraced their supporters one by one before being ushered into cars and driven away.

The pair maintained their innocence and received backing from the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) and parents at the institution, with supporters accusing police of a botched investigation and alleging that the men’s trials were unfair.

The abuse allegations rocked an institution that had been a favourite with expatriates and wealthy Indonesians in the capital for more than 60 years.

News of the Jakarta High Court’s decision to rule in favour of the men’s appeals came just days after a US$125-million (S$174.8 million) sex abuse lawsuit against the school was dismissed. Supporters believe the decision to pursue the men was linked to that suit, which was brought by the mother of an alleged victim.

“Thank God for this wonderful news,” lawyer Hotman Paris Hutapea told reporters at South Jakarta District Court, where the men were convicted, after receiving news of their successful appeals.

“This is certainly great news for the entire JIS community and the two teachers, Neil and Ferdi, and their families. They deserve their freedom after all the suffering and pain that they have experienced as victims of baseless accusations.”

The lawyer, who was picking up documents to process the men’s release, said he hoped they would be freed later Friday.

School spokesman Rully Iskandar added: “JIS has finally received justice.”

JIS is backed by the American embassy – which helped found the school – and US officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the case, saying it raised questions about the rule of law in Indonesia.

US ambassador to Jakarta Robert Blake said the United States welcomed the men’s acquittal.

“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,” he said in a statement.

As well as Monday’s decision by the South Jakarta District Court to throw out the multi-million-dollar civil suit, the men’s case received a boost last month when the Singapore High Court ruled in favour of the pair in a defamation case against the mother of one of the alleged victims for making untrue sex abuse claims.

- Long-running scandal -

The scandal began last year with claims that cleaners committed abuse at the school – previously known as the Jakarta International School – before allegations were levelled at Bantleman and Tjiong.

Five cleaners were jailed in December over claims of sexual abuse and remain in prison. Their lawyers claim they are innocent, and several who originally admitted to abuse recanted their confessions, claiming they were beaten by police.

The expatriate community in Jakarta was initially shocked at the claims of abuse, but horror quickly transformed into concern at what supporters say was an unfair attempt to target Bantleman and Tjiong by Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt police and judicial system.

The Canadian and British governments expressed concern after the verdicts in April, while the US ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake said the United States was “deeply disappointed with this outcome” and it raised questions about the rule of law in Indonesia.

Despite the concerns about the case, the prosecution insisted that the testimony of the alleged victims was the truth and that their claims were backed up by evidence from medical examinations.

The defence pointed to flawed evidence, however, in particular a claim by one boy that Bantleman inserted a “magic stone” into him to stop him feeling pain.