Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman has tasted freedom for the first time in more than a year, after the Jakarta High Court overturned convictions against him and Indonesian teaching assistant Ferdinant Tijong on allegations they abused students at an intercultural school.
Bantleman, from Burlington, Ont., and Tijong had spent more than a year in jail, in a case critics say was fraught with irregularities and put Indonesia's justice system under the spotlight.
"The truth has finally come out," a tearful Bantleman announced before kissing his wife upon his release from an East Jakarta prison, where he and Tjiong were met by dozens of cheering family members and supporters.
Bantleman, 45, and Tjiong were found guilty in April 2015 of abusing kindergarten students at the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS). They had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined 100 million rupiah ($7,600 Cdn). The two men filed appeals to the Jakarta High Court this past May.
The lawyer for both men, Hotman Paris Hutapea, said Friday the court overturned indecency convictions, on allegations they raped three kindergarten students who are now six and seven years old.
"Justice has been done," Hutapea told The Associated Press on Friday.
The judge delivered the decision Friday in a closed court, said reporter Jack Hewson, in Jakarta covering the story for CBC News.
Hutapea brought the written decision to a media scrum and read back the findings — not guilty based on the revisions of the evidence against both men, Hewson said.
"Tracy Bantleman and Ferdinant Tjiong's wife Siska both joined Hotman Paris [Hutapea] to announce the verdict. They were both extremely emotional addressing the crowd of journalists," Hewson said.
"Tracy said justice had finally been served and their husbands would be coming back to them where they belonged. She then broke down in tears."
Bantleman's brother, Guy Bantleman, who lives in Burlington, told CBC News late Thursday evening eastern time that he had received confirmation the convictions had been overturned.
"We are working to understand next steps to have Neil and Ferdi released in the next 12 hours," Guy Bantleman had said. Bantleman told the CBC that late Thursday evening, his brother's lawyers had received a letter saying the decision had been overturned.
Bantleman said his brother could be home in Canada as early as mid-September. For now, Neil Bantleman and his wife Tracy, will spend time together away from the media for at least the next three days.
Guy Bantleman said he is not sure if the prosecutor will appeal the decision.
Neil Bantleman and Tjiong have always maintained their innocence, supported by fellow teachers and the principal at the Jakarta International School, now called the Jakarta Intercultural School. It's attended by children of foreign diplomats, expatriates and Indonesia's elite, and has 2,400 students aged three to 18 from about 60 countries.
Bantleman, who used to teach at the Webber Academy in Calgary, has been behind bars in Jakarta since 2014 when the allegations were made.
Nan McKellar, who worked in Calgary with Bantleman, said she was "so happy" with the news.
"You know what, at our rally a month ago, down at city hall, there was no conception, no idea that this could happen this soon," she said. "Oh my gosh.
"You would only have to be in a room with Neil for a minute to know he is the most upstanding straightforward, no pretension, nothing hiding kind of person you will ever meet. None of us ever had a doubt for even a second," she added.
Hutapea has said the rape claims were all about money.
The principal and a number of other teachers have alleged the same about the case. The parents of one of the children had sued the school for alleged negligence and were seeking $125 million in compensation.
But on Monday, the same district court threw out the civil case brought by the mother of one of the children, saying it had not proven that any of the alleged abuses had actually 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 decision came after a court in Singapore on July 16 ruled that the woman accusing Bantleman had defamed him, Tjiong and the school because the allegations of sexual abuse could not be proven, and ordered the parent to pay a total of $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.
Hutapea said both decisions had an impact on the higher court's decision to free Bantleman and Tjiong. The arrests of Bantleman and Tjiong in July last year followed reports from the parents of a six-year-old boy who had been sodomized three months earlier.
Four male janitors were sentenced to eight years in jail in that case, while a woman received seven years as an accomplice. Police said a sixth suspect killed himself in custody by drinking bathroom cleaner.With files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press and Reuters