By Dessy Sagita
A Canadian and an Indonesian jailed for sexual abuse at an elite Jakarta international school have walked free from prison to an emotional reception from supporters after unexpectedly being cleared.
School administrator Neil Bantleman, who also holds British nationality, and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinand Tjiong were released from jail in the capital on Friday (local time) after winning their appeals because of a lack of evidence against them.
Bantleman hugged and kissed his wife Tracy, who could not stop crying, as he walked out of the prison gates, and told a scrum of supporters and journalists: "Everybody, thank you for your support."
The pair were jailed for 10 years each in April and ordered to pay a hefty fine after being found guilty of abusing three young children at the Jakarta Intercultural School (formerly the Jakarta International School), which has been popular with expatriates and wealthy Indonesians for decades.
They maintained their innocence and received backing from the school and parents, with supporters accusing police of a botched investigation and alleging that the men's trials were unfair.
But the Jakarta High Court ruling in the men's favour, which was handed down earlier this week but only passed to their legal team late on Thursday, and the speed of their release still came as a surprise after months of frustrated attempts to challenge their convictions.
Bantleman said he had no idea that he would be released until early on Friday.
As the men walked free, a small group of sobbing supporters yelled their names.
Tjiong, who was carrying his young daughter, said: "I thank God because the truth still exists in Indonesia. I hope this will never happen again."
They embraced their supporters one by one before being ushered into cars and driven away.
Their lawyer, Hotman Paris Hutapea, told reporters they were cleared as the High Court ruled there was "no proof", adding that the allegations against them were "baseless".
Hopes that the men might be released rose this week after a US$125 million sex abuse lawsuit against the school was dismissed, a suit that supporters believed was the main reason the pair were being pursued.
As well as the decision by a Jakarta court to throw out the multimillion-dollar civil suit, the men's case received a boost last month when the Singapore High Court ruled in favour of the pair in a defamation case against the mother of one of the alleged victims.
The arrests of Bantleman and Tjiong in July last year followed allegations from parents of a six-year-old boy at the school that he had been sodomised.
Four male janitors were sentenced to eight years in prison in that case and a woman received a seven-year prison sentence as an accomplice. Police said a sixth suspect killed himself in custody by drinking bathroom cleaner.
On Monday, the same district court that convicted Bantleman and Tjiong threw out the US$125 million civil case.
It said it was not proven that any of the alleged abuses had taken place. New evidence from medical reports from three different hospitals in Jakarta and Singapore showed no major injuries or abnormalities in the three children, the court said.
The Indonesian rulings come after a court in Singapore ruled on July 16 that the woman accusing Bantleman had defamed him, Tjiong and the school because the allegations of sexual abuse could not be proven.
It ordered her to pay US$164,700 in damages. The case was brought in Singapore by Bantleman's family because the initial allegations were made in Singapore through emails, texts and other digital communications.
A spokesman for the Jakarta prosecutor's office said the High Court's decision would be appealed to the Supreme Court.
"We are now studying the High Court's verdict and will file the appeal within two weeks," said Waluyo who like many Indonesians uses one name.