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Rape case at elite Indonesian expat school. A witch hunt?

The case has turned a spotlight on the police investigation of two teachers who are now on trial in Jakarta – and raised questions about the reliability of Indonesia's justice system.

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    Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman (2nd r.) shakes hands with supporters as he and his wife Tracy (r.) walk to a courtroom before the start of his trial at a South Jakarta court December 23, 2014. Bantleman, along with Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinant Tjiong, are on trial for alleged sexual assault at a Jakarta international school.
    Darren Whiteside/Reuters/File
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The writer's identification is withheld by request due to Indonesian legal restrictions on reporting details of cases of sexual abuse involving minors. 

For more than six decades, the Jakarta Intercultural School has educated the children of expats and Indonesian elites, offering an alternative to the country's woeful public schools. 

Cloistered in a posh neighborhood, its 2,700 K-12 students amble freely on a sprawling campus. The feel is progressive. Most students are issued iPads. They arrange their desks in class as they like or tackle assignments on large comfy cushions. Tuition costs $30,000 a year, nearly ten times the average income in Indonesia. 

Yet in the past year tragedy and scandal hit JIS. Harrowing accounts of rapes of kindergarten-aged students by some JIS staff have struck at the heart of this storied institution, stoking anti-foreigner rhetoric in media and among the public and tighter government regulation of private international schools. 

Two teachers, one a Canadian, are standing trial in a Jakarta court on charges they repeatedly raped three kindergarten-age boys over a period of months starting in 2013. In addition, five janitors hired via an outsourced cleaning service, were convicted last December and jailed for up to eight years for what a separate court ruled was their role in attacking one of the boys.

Eyebrows raised over police methods

Yet as the high-profile case of the teachers moves forward this week, a raft of serious problems with the methods and findings of the Jakarta police and the content of the prosecutions charges have come to light, raising the eyebrows of diplomats and bringing into question the reliability of Indonesia's justice system in front of the international community. 

The accusations of rape that emerged last March – and for which one local family of the alleged victims is suing the school for $125 million – came as a bolt out of the blue. “The case has been a huge reality check,” says Nicola Hennessy a second grade teacher at JIS.

Since the allegations, all teachers work with cameras installed in their classrooms. Even before then, visitors to the school typically faced three or more security checks before reaching their destination inside.

For weeks after the news broke the school faced daily protests calling for its closure and the arrest of its administration. Dozens of foreign national teachers with no connection to the case struggled to renew visas, and the start of school was delayed. The early childhood program was temporarily suspended. 

At the same time, Indonesia's government stepped up longstanding efforts to impose more of its domestic curriculum, including religious and Indonesian language studies, on international schools.

Kindergarten student alleges rape in a washroom

The saga around JIS dates to last March when a kindergarten student reportedly told his mother that he’d been raped in a school washroom not far from his class.

In April a second set of parents came forward alleging cleaners raped their son. Then in June a third set of parents came forward, this time alleging JIS teachers – one of them an Indonesian teaching assistant – had raped their son. All three sets of parents then changed their accounts to include the educators. The teachers are charged with raping at least one of the same boys at the center of the cleaners case.

Ferdinant Tjiong, the Indonesian teaching assistant, who worked alongside Hennessy prior to 2013, stands accused of raping the boys. Neil Bantleman, the Canadian national, and administrator of the elementary school grades, is the second accused.

The two, who deny the charges, were identified when one of the alleged victims pointed out their pictures in the school year book.

Yet after a year of sensational coverage and the trial of the janitors, and as the teachers are standing trial, the JIS story is bending in a different direction: New developments appear to expose serious flaws in Indonesia’s police and justice system. 

For one thing, four of the male janitors who originally pleaded guilty say their confessions were beaten out of them by police. A fifth male cleaner died mysteriously in custody. There has been no investigation. 

Nor have medical examinations ever turned up evidence or a sign of rape. Police never questioned close colleagues about the behavior or background of the two accused. The parents – of both Indonesian and foreign origin -- can’t give details of when or where the alleged rapes took place, making alibis impossible. 

A 'secret room' and a 'magic stone'

Police originally said the attacks took place in glass walled offices in the school’s busy administration building. This claim was later dropped in the indictment, and a “secret room” for the crime was put forward. Police have yet to name or place that room. Police also originally said the perpetrators had tattoos; but neither men sport them. This claim has been dropped.

Further, and adding to mounting incredulity, part of the charges brought by authorities include an explanation of why the boys were able to so quickly adjust after a traumatizing experience -- to rejoin their classes and behave normally around their parents. The prosecution claims it is because Mr. Bantleman allegedly “conjured a magic stone” from the air that he used to anesthetize the children and make them forget. 

Lawyers for both the cleaners and the teachers have said they will fight to supreme court. 

After the guilty verdict in the case against the cleaners, the US ambassador to Indonesia, Robert Blake, said the trials are being closely watched abroad as a barometer for the state of Indonesia’s rule of law. 

The trial for the teachers is currently winding its way through a South Jakarta court. It’s due to wrap up in March with a verdict likely in April.

The US, British and Australian embassies helped found Jakarta International School shortly after Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch. It has since changed its name to Jakarta Intercultural School. 

The final verdicts of the case against the cleaners as well as of the JIS teachers trial “will impact Indonesia’s reputation abroad,” Mr. Blake said in a statement.

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