A Canadian teacher at a prestigious international school in Indonesia was found guilty of sexual assault on Thursday, following a four-month trial that ignited both accusations of judicial malfeasance and anti-Western sentiments in the Southeast Asian nation.
Canadian school administrator Neil Bantleman from Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS), formerly called Jakarta International School, faces 10 years behind bars for repeatedly raping three kindergarten-aged male students.
In the absence of physical evidence, the prosecutors largely built their case around testimony provided by the victims. However, the defendant’s legal team argue that young children were effectively forced to identify Bantleman and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinant Tjiong as the culprits.
Prior to the pair's arrests last summer, five of the school’s janitors were also found guilty of molesting one of the three pupils at JIS and were handed prison sentences ranging from seven to eight years in length. The group had initially admitted the charges, but later recanted and accused officials of beating them into a confession in detention. A sixth janitor tied to the incident died in custody after an apparent suicide.
Following the decision to arrest Bantleman and Tjiong, the U.S. embassy in Indonesia warned that allegations of the torture and shoddy legal work could further undermine the country’s standing. The JIS cases comes amid an international outcry over the pending execution of a group of drug traffickers, including the so-called Bali Nine duo, despite sustained pleas for clemency.
“The international community here, foreign investors, and foreign governments are all following this case and the case involving the JIS teachers very closely,” said U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert O. Blake in a statement published by the Wall Street Journal. “The outcome of these cases and what it reveals about the rule of law in Indonesia will have a significant impact on Indonesia’s reputation abroad.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono said accusations that the janitors were tortured while in custody should have been considered at greater length by the judiciary before allowing the case against Bantleman and Tjiong to commence. In addition, the defense cited significant inconsistencies with the victims' testimony.
“It should be enough for the judges to be dismissive of the prosecution,” Harsono tells TIME. “It is another black mark for the South Jakarta court's reputation.” In a widely criticized verdict in February, a judge at the South Jakarta court ruled that the Corruption Eradication Commission had no legal basis to name the President's nominee for police chief as a graft suspect.
Critics of the JIS trial have also contended that the case is nothing more than a thinly disguised ploy to shut down the school’s historic campus that resides on some of the sprawling Indonesian capital’s most valuable real estate.
“The judges must consider a $125 million lawsuit filed by the mother of one of the boys as motive for dragging the teachers into this criminal case,” the defendants’ legal team said in a statement, according to the Jakarta Post.
Officials from the country’s Indonesian Children's Protection Commission had already accused the school’s administrators of fostering an environment that led to the rapes.
During a press conference last year, the head of the commission accused JIS of impropriety by tolerating kissing in public and employing gay teachers. Asrorun Ni'am Sholeh, the commission’s chairman, later added that "homosexuality in such environment could trigger sexual violence against children."
— With reporting by Yenni Kwok