Schapelle Corby – and her relationship with a very specific part of Australian opinion – has been intense. In 2004, she was arrested at Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport in possession of 4.1 kilograms of marijuana. She was found guilty of smuggling and sentenced to 20 years. Harsh, yes, but the Indonesian state has made no secret of stiff sentences for drug convictions. It is also worth noting that the judge presiding over the case, Linton Sirait, had not acquitted a single one of the 500 defendants standing trial on drug charges before him.
Families do as families always do in this situation: assume that the prosecutors had gotten it wrong. Their little girl, a young beautician from the Gold Coast, was innocent. “We swore on the Bible to tell the truth and your fellow lied!” shouted Corby’s mother, Rosleigh Rose. After 9 years, she has been granted parole and effectively freed. She will, however, have to remain in Bali till 2017.
The matter was polarising from the start. Unfortunate victim of a foiled drug operation? Clueless white trash finally trumped? The low brow incredulous boogie boarders meeting judgmental high brows? Soon, Corby the person ceased to be as relevant as Corby the concept. The concept, boiled down to its elements, was directed against the Indonesian legal system.
Those cheering Corby have automatically taken the stance of righteousness, assuming that a rotten system had dealt her a terrible hand. In similar parallels to the Amanda Knox case in Italy, assumptions have been made about the country hosting the trial, its lawyers, its legal system. For many Americans, Italy’s legal system is incapable of granting an American woman, certainly one such as Knox, a fair trial; for many Australians, the idea that Corby first, could have been guilty; and second, could have been granted a fair trial, is inconceivable.
Both the Knox and Corby cases show a form of cultural imperialism at play. In the Italian case, it is a form of spite against a superpower; in the Corby case, it is the legal pretensions of a developing state. Bali, being Australia’s heavily discounted whorehouse, shouldn’t be so unkind to its white revellers.
Both cases are filled with assumption and conjecture that continually attempt to discredit the convictions. Gender and ethnicity are fundamental in this assessment. A white woman, in an Indonesian cell, wounded by a vicious process, is the vital theme. In Corby’s case, Russell Crowe would fume on Sydney radio station 2UE that, “When there is such doubt, how can we as a country stand by and let a young lady, an Australian, rot away in a foreign prison?” (CNN, Feb 7).
Eventually, such views assume that the courts that judged Knox and Corby was a jungle deliberation. Judicial and evidentiary facts do not matter – keep the lawyers out of it. What would they, in their national habitat, know? Let foreign popular opinion, no, sentiment, be the judge. If it decides on lynching, well and good. If it exonerates, well and good.
Political cartoonist Larry Pickering, as a case in point, is full of pointers on Indonesian “disrespect” for Australia. Making it sound like a political targeting, Pickering was baffled as to why during parole, “Schapelle and her supporters must not disclose or discuss publicly, under threat of re-incarceration, what appear to be glaring evidential anomalies behind her conviction”. The vital point was one of comparison – Corby, by Australian legal standards “could not have been convicted due to inconclusive, curiously missing and tainted evidence”. The obvious fact that she was not tried in an Australian setting continues to irk – after all, Indonesian judges were naturally corrupt, bothered more with finance than justice.
In the Corby saga, Indonesia’s views are continuously discounted as archaic and savage. “The judges don’t even speak English mate,” suggested Radio 2GB’s Malcolm T. Elliott to an on air caller, “they’re straight out of the trees if you excuse my expression” (The Guardian, Feb 8). In the aftermath of the conviction, Corby supporters insisted that donations for Indonesia’s tsunami and earthquake victims be withdrawn. The Indonesian embassy in Canberra received a white powdery substance in an envelope.
The disdain shown for Australia’s big neighbour continues. It is a dangerous state worthy of surveillance, and it is deemed the ideal dumping ground for asylum seekers. As Ketut Sumarka, one of the customs officers on duty at Ngurah Rai airport when the marijuana was found claims, politics has been the determining factor behind the release of the Marijuana Queen (Ratu Ganja).
A point often missing in Australian discussions on the subject was one vital fact: Indonesia is a sovereign country with its own set of rules. This fact has been assiduously ignored, though Corby is a different prospect to the Australian intelligence services. Surely, the ironists will be out in force to question what the Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop means by respecting Corby’s “privacy”. The word is hardly part of Australia’s surveillance activities regarding Jakarta.
But the Corby case was always an exceptional one, because it was made exceptional. Australians in Bali are self-appointed kings of the plantation. Sentiment and prejudice are bound to intrude. As John Monfries would argue in Different Societies, Shared Futures (2006), a work examining the Australian-Indonesian relationship, “The Corby affair revealed high levels of ignorance and prejudice about Indonesia in some quarters in Australia.”
Shoddy, befuddled and staggering statements have been made about Corby over the years. A true jewel came in the statement, recently posted in social media, that Corby was, “Truly the Nelson Mandela of our times.” Some are just fed up by the stodge. “Honestly,” opined Fairfax journalist Mike Carlton, “I can quite happily live the rest of my life without ever again hearing the words ‘Schapelle’ and ‘Corby’” (Twitter, Feb 9). She, and many Indonesians, might very well feel the same way.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org