Neil Bantleman freed after sex assault conviction overturned by Indonesian court
Teaching assistant from Jakarta school also cleared by high court in appeal hearing
On Friday, Indonesia freed Canadian teacher Neil Bantleman and an Indonesian teaching assistant, Ferdinant Tjiong, who had been jailed for sexually abusing students at an international school in a case critics say was fraught with irregularities and put the country'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 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 in May.
The lawyer for both men, Hotman Paris Hutapea, said Friday that the court overturned both Bantleman and Tjiong's indecency convictions for raping three kindergarten students, now six and seven years old, at the international school.
"Justice has been done," Hutapea told The Associated Press on Friday.
The judge delivered the decision in closed court, said reporter Jack Hewson, who is covering the story from Jakarta for CBC News.
Hutapea brought the written decision to an awaiting media scrum and read back the findings — which was 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 Toronto, told CBC News late Thursday evening that he had received confirmation the convictions had been overturned.
In an email on Friday morning, Guy said the duo had been released and that the Bantlemans will spend the next 72 hours away from the media spotlight.
After the weekend, he said, the family will determine next steps, including a possible appeal by the prosecutor to the supreme court in Indonesia.
Men always maintained innocence
Bantleman, a Burlington, Ont., native 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.
The Jakarta school where he worked is attended by children of foreign diplomats, expatriates and Indonesia's elite. It has 2,400 students aged three to 18 from about 60 countries.
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.
Civil case thrown out
But on Monday, the same district court threw out the civil case brought by the mother of one of the children against the school, saying it had not proven that any of the alleged abuses had actually taken place, since 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.
Hutapea said a copy of the higher court decision has to be taken to the district court to start the process of getting his clients released from prison.
Prosecutors, who could appeal the latest decision to the Supreme Court, could not be reached for comment.
With files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press and Reuters