Cecillia Bae talks to Tracy Bantleman, wife of incarcerated Neil Bantleman, who has just spent his second birthday behind bars, and discovers that support for the teachers and cleaners of the JIS trial is growing in numbers.
When his daughter repeatedly asked why he never came home, Ferdinant Tjiong responded that he was simply still working – a white lie that served as an easier option, rather than to outline the grave, inexplicable complexities of the chain of events that have taken place over the last two years.
Heavy allegations of sexual abuse inundated communities around the world in April 2014; immediately, six janitorial staff members from the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) were shut behind bars. Not long after, Neil Bantleman, an assistant principal at the school’s elementary school campus, and Ferdinant Tjiong, a teaching assistant, were labelled suspects, instigating their abrupt incarceration. Many condemned these imprisonments as the immediate action to turn to, especially without any substantiating evidence in sight.
However, an increasing amount of holes soon deflated the prosecution’s initial accusations: news of medical results testing negative from the victim for sodomy and herpes; children’s allegations that Bantleman had produced a magic stone from thin air as anaesthesia; and testimonies citing that the incident had occurred in rooms in the elementary school office entirely made of glass, visible from the outside from any angle. Furthermore, the group of now five janitors, who had initially confessed to the crime, recanted and accused officials of torture as a means of gathering the confessions. One of the six cleaners died in custody due to apparent suicide, but was cited by witnesses as physically battered.
Over a year after their seemingly unfounded incarceration, Bantleman and Tjiong were acquitted by the High Court and freed for six months. Although many harshly censured the nation’s judicial system for imprisoning eight people with no evidence to fit their crimes, the two teachers were rearrested after the Supreme Court overturned their acquittal in two days. The current situation lies with Bantleman and Tjiong, each serving 11 years in prison; four out of five remaining janitorial staff members serving eight years; and one member serving seven years – all for crimes that disputably never occurred.
Presently, the Bantlemans and communities around them plan to exhaust every last legal course of action possible. Tracy Bantleman, wife of Neil Bantleman, explained that they anxiously await a written verdict from the Supreme Court. “After the verdict is received, the defence team will file and finalize the Judicial Review. This stands as our last legal option,” she told Indonesia Expat.
However, the legal proceedings are not the only important aspect to this case.
Currently, Bantleman and Tjiong share a cell in Lapas Cipinang, mustering all the strength they have to maintain their morale, and mental and physical strength; a personal mattress, toilet and mandi for bathing are the sole possessions they are permitted to own.
According to Mrs. Bantleman, Lapas Cipinang did recently undergo general maintenance and renovations, including fixed lighting and additional painted areas. Yet, reality portrays the prison as congested, already at the maximum capacity of around 3,000 prisoners, many of whom are serving lengthy sentences for drug offenses.
“I try to visit at least four days a week,” Mrs. Bantleman relayed, after describing that each are allowed visiting hours of up to two hours a day, every week from Monday to Friday.
May 30 marked Mr. Bantleman’s second birthday spent in prison. His greatest fear is failing to see his father again, due to his father’s declining health. Mrs. Bantleman stated, “Neil is demonstrating great patience and resilience, but being inside prison for a crime you did not commit and having to see your family, friends and the community suffer so greatly is a heavy burden.” She continued to explain that they simply wish for a just and speedy resolution to the case.
“Ferdi is very worried about his wife and two girls as he cannot do the things he normally would to help support his family,” Mrs. Bantleman relayed. Not long after his imprisonment, Tjiong’s daughter soon lacked the financial support to regularly attend school and receive a stable education.
When asked about the cleaners, Mrs. Bantleman replied, “I occasionally see the cleaners visiting with their families during my visits. I cannot imagine how hopeless they must feel in their situation.” In fact, ‘hopeless’ could be an understated depiction. Agun was forced to leave his seven-month pregnant wife, and never had the chance to hold his child outside of prison walls. Afrischa supported her aunt and sister, and was unable to walk down the aisle at her wedding. And Azwar, who once supported his mother and was engaged, died before he could ever see his mother, fiancée and the world outside of his prison cell.
Although the case has continued to evolve for two long years, communities have not paused in rallying for freedom. In fact, although originally a vast number of people believed the convicted to be indubitably guilty of their crime, many – if not most – of those aware of the case now fight in favour of those incarcerated. According to Mrs. Bantleman, non-government organizations such as Kontras and Mappi conducted a case study, concluding those imprisoned as innocent; furthermore, the Bantlemans have received support from Global Affairs in Ottawa, Canada, and the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta.
Once being the highest number of individuals who were proponents of the imprisonments, the Indonesian public has also begun to realize the seemingly flawed and questionable allegations; several groups within the public have also demanded veritable information from the case. “The voices of these groups are getting stronger and louder; support inside Indonesia is at an all time high,” Mrs. Bantleman stated.
One of the largest groups formed from the Indonesian public is Kawan8, a group of eight members united through a unanimous thirst to fight for justice and a voice for the seven behind prison bars.
“All I heard was there was a rape situation at JIS, and the cleaners and teachers were suspects. I thought it was true at first,” Arita, a representative from Kawan8, told Indonesia Expat.
Kawan8 has a looming, but simple goal: it strives to raise crowdfunding money of Rp.1 billion. Not a single cent is to be used for Kawan8’s interests; rather, it hopes to use the money for peninjauan kembali, or the final review of the court’s decision. Kawan8 hopes to raise their funds through a 180-day fundraising campaign including public vigils, a book launch, and lobbying for the help of professionals with expertise in similar cases. Arita explained, “We believe that society is most powerful. We have to get a lot of pressure from society, especially from university students, so we can unite our power to make it easier to press the government and the court.”
While the crowdfunding money will be used for logistical items on the agenda to fight the judicial court, Kawan8 also strongly believes that the funds are essential to stand as a symbol for the struggle and victory for justice. “The money we’re raising is a symbol that society acknowledges justice. Any amount of money, little or big, will show that society wants to contribute to fight for justice,” Arita illustrated.
When asked why Kawan8 was formed and why the members decided to join the ongoing battle, Arita demonstrated her personal motive. “My heart was moved because the law system in Indonesia had injustice, especially to those with no power. There are so many people who pray and care, but so little who actually act. I wanted to be the one who did act. Innocent people are in jail for something they didn’t do. How long are we going to keep silent?”
To donate towards the crowdfunding effort set up by Kawan8, visit kitabisa.com/justice4theinnocents