Drug case tests improved Indonesia-Australia ties

Friday, Australians' eyes will be on an Indonesian courtroom, where their fellow compatriot Schapelle Corby is expected to receive a verdict on charges of drug smuggling, a crime that can carry the death penalty.

Last October, officials at Bali airport found 4.1 kilograms of marijuana zipped inside Ms. Corby's boogie board bag next to her flippers. Since then, her case has captivated Australia, where the wide-eyed 27-year-old from Brisbane who claims innocence has been shown constantly on the nightly news being hustled in and out of a tumultuous courtroom packed with media.

Indonesians may be treating Corby's predicament as just another drug case, but outrage on the young woman's behalf has spilled from all quarters of Australian media, with pointed questions being aired about the integrity of Indonesia's legal system. Legal experts, and even movie stars like Russell Crowe, have weighed into the debate on Corby's side. A few cynics have suggested that the outpouring of sympathy in this case while there are two Australians on death row in Singapore and Vietnam and 11 others in custody in Indonesia, may be driven somewhat by Corby's good looks.

While passions are running high among ordinary Australians over the case - and a guilty verdict would inflame them further - political analysts here suggest that the blossoming relationship between Jakarta and Canberra has proven too important for both governments to jeopardize by politicizing the case.

In the last two years, the two countries have established a ministerial forum where key ministers meet to discuss issues ranging from mining to immigration. And this has opened up more possibilities for resolving conflicts - like the Corby case - at least at the government level.

"Where you have such closeness, you get a totally different relationship, a deeper one, and although there may be domestic pressure on [Prime Minister John] Howard after the verdict, the diplomatic relationship will most likely be managed well where staffers are so close to each other," says Virginia Hooker, professor of Indonesian and Malaya at the Australian National University.

The Howard government has been trying to build on democratic developments in Indonesia, among them judicial reform. This has forced Australia to emphasize dialogue over vitriol in the Corby case.

"Australia has argued for a very long time that Indonesia should have an independent judiciary," said Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. "Of course the downside of that is that you can't ring up the president any more and say 'Release this person, tell the court to do this, tell the court to do that.' "

Malcolm Cook, program director for Asia and the Pacific at the Lowy Institute, an independent think-tank in Sydney says he does not believe there has been any pressure from the Australian government on Indonesia. But, he says, if a guilty verdict is handed down, then Mr. Howard would face domestic pressure over his close relationship with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

"The defense has been successful in whipping up support for the young woman in the media here, and the ambivalence about Indonesia domestically would only get exacerbated," says Mr. Cook.

A poll conducted by the Lowy Institute earlier this year shows that when asked how Australians felt about a long list of friends and neighboring countries, it rated Indonesia just above the Middle East, Iran, and Iraq, with a marginal 52 percent saying they felt positive about the place, and 42 saying they felt negative.

The Howard government has made a few moves to help Corby's defense, including the temporary release of a prisoner who went to testify at the trial.

Corby's defense has claimed all along that baggage handlers in Australia planted the drugs in Corby's luggage as part of a bungled domestic smuggling operation - and that the drugs were never meant to arrive in Indonesia at all.

Sources at the Indonesian Embassy say that although the Australian government appears to have supported the defense during the trial, there had been no attempt to interfere with the case.

However, there are lingering doubts here about the sanctity of the current legal system in Indonesia, which is still evolving from the days of the Suharto regime, when one's legal argument often had no bearing on the outcome of a case.

Questions are being asked as to why there were no fingerprints taken from the bag that contained 9 pounds of marijuana the moment it was discovered in the student's boogie bag in Denpasar airport.

There are other issues as well. "Unlike Australia and America, which have a jury system, a panel of three judges will decide on the fate of the girl, and these judges have a very strong history of conviction on drugs cases," Cook explains.

What makes the matter even more difficult for the Australian government is the fact that AUSAID has been funding the training of judges and the legal establishment in a more democratic system.

"Although I am not sure whether these three judges have had the training, it really makes things much more sticky for Australia because here is Australia putting a huge effort into changing the old system," says Virginia Hooker.

The case present pitfalls for Indonesia as well - not the least of which are threats of a travel boycott by Australians in the event of a guilty verdict. Travelers to Bali already have a heightened concern about their luggage on arrival at the airport. Kathryn Robinson is an anthropologist who transits through Bali at least eight times a year on her way to and from Sulowesi.

"The last time I got there my lock was missing and I immediately reported it to Qantas staff before I got to customs - something I would not usually do," Ms. Robinson says. However, she has no plans to cancel trips to Indonesia no matter what the outcome of the Corby case.

But not all may be as forgiving: Traveltrade, a trade magazine, reports that Bali bookings have slowed by 20 percent in recent weeks.

However, a verdict of "not guilty" could go down badly in Indonesia as well, where the judiciary might be accused of succumbing to pressure from Australia.

In the end, Australia's improved ties with Jakarta could ease Corby's future, even if she is found guilty. "There is talk of a one-off special prisoner transfer deal if Schapelle must go to jail," says Cook. "Such discussions could only be possible if the two countries had an extremely good understanding."

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