If you visit the website of Cipinang Penitentiary (http://www.rutancipinang.info/) you’ll most likely be impressed with its flashy modern presentation, which includes a mission statement and love poetry written by one of its inmates. Famous former detainees at this top security prison in east Jakarta include Indonesia’s best known novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the country’s first vice president, Mohammed Hatta.
But independent sites referencing this facility are more likely to describe it as dangerously violent, notoriously overcrowded (The Wall Street Journal, 2014), corrupt, and rife with drug dealing (Jakarta Globe, July 2013). Although recent human rights reports appear to be oddly unavailable, Amnesty International has stated that in the period between January 2003-April 2005, “over 81 per cent of prisoners arrested (and held in) Cipinang … were tortured or ill-treated.”
Among Cipinang’s current prisoners are Zainal, Agun, Syahrial, and Awan, four former ISS (Integrated Service Solutions) cleaners serving sentences for sexual assaults at JIS (Jakarta Intercultural School) “sometime” in 2014. Their convictions were based upon the testimony of the alleged victims and their parents, and the fact that they all confessed to their crimes. The lack of medical evidence to support the prosecution’s allegations was ignored by the court, and despite recanting their confessions, which were obtained through torture while the men were being held at POLDA, the South Jakarta police facility, these young men were found guilty. Afrischa, a female ISS employee, was given a seven year sentence and a sixth suspect, Azwar, died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
On August 14th, the Indonesian High Court ruled that two JIS teachers, also convicted in this case, were innocent of any wrongdoing. After serving four months of a sentence determined by such ludicrous “evidence” as a magic stone, disappearing secret rooms and video tapes that were never produced, Neil Bantleman and Ferdinand Tijong are now fully acquitted and free. In contrast, the same court turned down the cleaners’ appeal in June, and the Supreme Court has recently also denied them a new trial. The difference? Those confessions.
“I recently visited Cipinang to meet Zainal, Syahrial, Agunand Awan because I am one of tens of thousands who believe in their innocence. Here follows an account at the end that day.
Escorted by several JIS parents, I am led to a waiting area where the family members of other inmates await their visitations. Beside me, a young mother with a forlorn expression soothes a baby, and I think perhaps she, like Agun’s daughter, will be meeting her father for the first time while he is behind bars. Looking around at the various parents, wives, girlfriends and children, I can’t help but wonder how many of the men imprisoned here are, like our friends, serving sentences for crimes they never committed.
Because we’re also in the company of the cleaners’ lawyer, we’re promptly ushered with little fanfare through several bolted doors and a cursory pat-down by a female guard into the inner prison. The bags of gifts, letters and food we’ve brought along barely receive a glance. One of the JIS ladies, Ibu Maya, has a friendly exchange with the head guard – it’s clear she’s a regular visitor – and we’re soon directed to a large air-conditioned meeting hall where thin plastic mats are being spread out along the walls.
VIP prisoners receiving guests today begin to filter in. A former minister is quietly pointed out to me, dressed in immaculate batik. Two beefy men set up small folding chairs on their mat, the type you’d take to a football game, and rattle open newspapers. “They’re in for corruption,” says Ibu Lorly, one of the JIS moms, “And that guy,” she adds, nodding to a well-dressed man sporting sunglasses, “is a drug lord.” Family members arrive and soon the scene is familiarly Indonesian; food is laid out picnic-style on the mats, small children chase balls across the floor, there is laughter and salaams are exchanged.
Our young men enter: Zainal, Syahrial, Agun and Awan. They greet their JIS patrons respectfully, their shy happiness to see them evident in their eyes. The ladies call them over to the mat they have reserved with our assorted sandals, smiling and joking to help them feel at ease. Zainal sits across from me on the mat, his eyes looking somewhere past my right shoulder. I can only imagine what he is thinking – “Who is this bule woman who sends us postcards from Switzerland, encouraging us to be strong?” I sit quietly, the lone blonde in the room, watching the dedicated JIS parents who visit these innocent young men every month unpack the gifts they have brought this time. Agun’s eyes light up when he sees the new futsal boots and socks, and Awan grins broadly as he tries his on. Ibu Lorly makes them all laugh when she advises them to sleep with the boots like kalung (necklaces) around their necks.
“Now see what Ibu Kristan has brought you,” urges Ibu Indah, and I hand out Swiss t-shirts and Toblerone chocolates, grateful that my Bahasa Indonesia hasn’t deserted me since I moved to Europe. Zainal still doesn’t meet my eyes, but he speaks quietly; I can’t hear him because of all the chatter around us. Ibu Maya repeats his words. “Zainal says they’re flattered that someone from so far away cares about their plight. He asks you to tell them about Switzerland.” To cover the sudden emotion that threatens to unhinge me, I start babbling about Swiss cows. “The first day I lived in our mountain village, I heard the cow bells,” I say. “They sound just like angklung.” The young men, one of them the age of my own son, grin delightedly at this. “I loved how they reminded me of Indonesia until the end of the week when they were becoming a little maddening.” I cover my ears and make a crazy face, and they all laugh. They tell me the scenic postcards I send them are up on their cell walls. “And you are with me in Switzerland every day,” I reply. “Every time I walk my dog, I take you all with me. In the winter, I imagined you having snowball fights.” They have been in jail for over a year now, so they have accompanied me in my mind through every season.
Ibu Maya encourages the boys – it’s clear this is what they have become to these generous ladies: their boys – to eat the bakmie they’ve brought, and the conversation is relaxed. I learn that Zainal supports Atletico Madrid, andhis favourite players are Diego and Torres. He looks amusedly surprised when I tell him I am a rabid Manchester United supporter.
The talk then turns to the unsuccessful appeal to the Indonesian Supreme Court. “People everywhere in the world know the truth about your innocence,” I say. “Next May when I visit Jakarta,” I tell Zainal, “I want to meet you all somewhere else.” He replies, “I adore this thinking, Ibu.”
I know a lot about Zainal because I’ve already conducted long-distance interviews with the cleaners with Ibu Maya’s help. I know he’s 29, was born in Ciputat, Jakarta, and is the youngest child and only son of an ojek driver who proudly took him to school every single day all the way through high school. Zainal supported his family, paying four nieces and nephews’ school fees, and had nearly completed a university level economic management/communications program at Universitas Pamulang prior to his arrest. He plays chess, draws cartoons and is the best futsal player among them. His ISS supervisor described him as diligent and always cheerful, but it’s hard to see that cheer in his expression today. His mother says Zainal “always listened to us and obeyed our wishes. He has a kind heart, and was awarded a Golden Heart certificate by ISS as a valued employee.” Zainal was flying a kite with his sister’s son when the police came for him, and his nephew is still so heart-broken about his uncle’s fate that he hasn’t returned to school. Zainal’s parents sold all the land and the house they owned to pay over 100 million rupiah for legal fees to support his legal expenses. Where is the appreciation of ISS now, I wonder? The most outrageous information I learned from the interviews was that while employed by ISS, Zainal, as well as the late Azwar, worked on the JIS Cilandak (Middle and High School) campus, and not on the Pondok Indah campus where the alleged assaults occurred. When I asked the difficult question as to why he had confessed to the charges, he replied, “I was tortured until I couldn’t bear it anymore. I didn’t want to die.” He broke down and signed the papers with which the police presented him, even though he didn’t know what sodomy, the crime to which he was forced to confess, meant.
Syahrial, seated beside Zainal, grew up the tenth of eleven children in Pamulang, where his parents sold kue apem for a living. Like the others, he contributed to the support of his family. He left school after SMP (Middle School), is married and has a four-year old son. Those who know him well describe him as hard-working and responsible. He had never seen the children he was accused of abusing until the first day of his trial. Fear echoes in his eyes when I ask him about his confession. “The police wouldn’t believe me when I denied doing anything; they wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was beaten until I feared for my life. I just couldn’t bear their torture.” He looks at his hands and swallows hard. “It means so much that people support and pray for us. I really just want to go home to be with my family. I miss my parents, my son and my wife so badly. I fear that my name will never be cleared, and they will all suffer for it.”
Agun is native to Jakarta, the youngest of four children. His father works as a driver and Agun contributed to the support of his parents. Growing up, he kept birds and snakes as pets, even though at first he was afraid of reptiles. He went to a high school where he specialized in Automotive Engineering. He likes football and music, and lately, spiritual reading to keep him calm and strong. His one-year-old daughter was born after he was put in prison. He passes the time now doing newspaper craft, running and praying. He was initially implicated in the abuse when Awan was pressured to name others during his interrogation. Agun says, “I was tortured too, and gave a false confession to save myself from more beatings. I forgave Awan, and now we are brothers.”
Awan, the youngest of the convicted cleaners, is the quiet member of our group. He has a beautiful, gentle smile. He was born in Nganjuk, East Java, where he was raised by his mother and step-father. After graduating from high school, he moved to Jakarta where he lived with his grandmother, who spends hours on buses traveling by herself to visit him. He worked as a cleaner at FedEx before being hired by ISS and placed at JIS. He was proud to have earned enough to purchase a motorcycle, which he maintained meticulously.
Agun is talking about his baby daughter, whom he will see along with his wife in a separate visitation after we leave. His eyes light up when he speaks of them, and I will meet her as I am leaving, in her cheerful pink kabaya, a beautiful, slender young woman radiating strength. I will also introduce myself to Syahrial’s parents, wife and little boy, and tell them we all know their son is a good man. His father will smile and nod. Syahrial’s brother paid Rp.2 million to his lawyers for each day of his months-long trial. There is no doubt in any of these family members’ minds that they are victims of corruption and innocent of wrongdoing.
As we speak, I can’t help but notice a certain fragility to these young men; they are occasionally distracted, their glances flicking to the guards in the corridor beyond the visiting room door. I recall their testimonies in the TV One series, “Cry of JIS Defendants Behind Bars,” in which they detailed their interrogations. Repeatedly beaten with fists, hoses, staplers and chairs, threatened with a steel bar against their genitals, burned with cigarettes, their eyebrows ripped out with duct tape, one by one they came undone. Syahrial had a lit cigarette thrust into his eye, and a pistol held to his head before he agreed to confess. The stain of that horror is still with them.
The time flies. As we prepare to say goodbye, Syahrial, an animated speaker, addresses us all. “You are luar biasa,” he says. “You care for us and for our families, you send us letters and bring us all these gifts. We have nothing to give you in return, but God will do this for us.” He touches his heart. “The greatest gift you can give us in return,” I reply, “is to make your time here worth something. There is a library in the prison; use it to learn. Write a little bit each day about your truth and your experience, so that your story can be told, and help others who are in a similar situation. This will be your gift in return.”
When we rise to leave, the young men offer their hands, but I am a mother, and in the past few hours these innocents have become my sons too. I embrace them one by one, and carry them with me out through the series of guarded doors into the bright light of midday, like unshed tears, silent shards in my heart. I recall the Hebrew phrase “tikkunolam,” which means we are here to repair the broken things in the world and am heart-rendingly aware that everything about this case is broken. Standing in the prison parking lot, I vow to be a part of the process to see these gentle souls free, no matter how long it takes. Their last chance for justice is an upcoming judicial review.”
We need the world to join us in asking that the truth about this tragedy be told. While two innocent men have been exonerated, there are still lima lagi – five more- who need their good names and honest lives restored.