The case of Schapelle Corby, a 27-year-old beautician from Perth, now facing a possible death sentence after nine pounds of marijuana were found in her luggage as she arrived at the Indonesian resort of Bali for a brief vacation, is gaining global media attention, stirring passions in both countries, and threatening to damage relations between the two neighbors. Her trial ended this month, with a verdict and sentence expected May 27.
Meanwhile, last Friday in neighboring Singapore, non-white, non-Western, non-photogenic Shanmugam Murugesu, 38, was hanged for smuggling three pounds of pot into the authoritarian city-state. Despite questions of his innocence and a campaign by his sons to spare his life, his execution was marked only by a handful of international drug reform activists and terse announcements in the regional press. Which is not to trivialize Schapelle Corby's plight, only to remark on the vagaries of existence that led Murugesu to die virtually unnoticed while Corby's case has become a cause celèbre.
That is in part because of the cultural divide between the two neighbors, starkly illustrated by Corby's case and the light it sheds on their contrasting approaches to drugs. While Australia is no Netherlands, and officials of the state of South Australia seem poised to take a step backwards (newsbrief this issue), still the South Pacific nation sits squarely within the relatively enlightened contemporary Western approach to drug policy with its safe injection sites and comparatively lax marijuana laws in some states. Indonesia, on the other, approaches the matter in line with its neighbors in a region that has become the heart of darkness for drug policy. Southeast Asia is a hotbed of virulent prohibitionism, with a full-blown drug hysteria and death squads in the Philippines, a murderous war on drug users and dealers in Thailand, and ready resort to execution for even small-time drug trafficking offenses in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Singapore.
The blue-eyed beautician's ordeal began when she touched down in Bali, a popular resort island only just beginning to regain popularity with Australians after the Al-Qaeda-linked hotel bombings that left 202 dead there in 2002. As she went through Indonesian customs with a group of friends, customs officers pulled nine pounds of marijuana from her baggage. At that point, despite her protestations of innocence, which she maintains to this day, she was dragged off to prison, where she remains to this day.
As the trial moved toward its conclusion late last month, televised scenes of Corby crying in anguish as she pled for her freedom and audio recordings of her screaming in despair after being led back into the cells after a hearing, as well as her repeated fainting in the courtroom and obvious nervous exhaustion, stirred sympathy and outrage in Australia, where a movement led by media figure Paul Holmes and controversial Australian Gold Coast entrepreneur Ron Bakir sought to mobilize public opinion to spare the young woman.
To a certain degree, it worked. While the government of Prime Minister John Howard is no friend of drug reform or accused drug smugglers, it has worked with Corby's defense attorneys to look into claims of drug-smuggling rings among baggage handlers and vowed to intervene diplomatically to save her life if she gets a death sentence.
Even Prime Minister Howard himself was forced to declare a public interest in her case, although he couldn't resist a warning about drug smuggling. "I am following it," he told the Australian TV program Dateline in April. "I've taken a personal interest, in the sense that I have been concerned, on the face of it, about some aspects of it. I choose my words very carefully because I have to respect the legal system of another country, and people do know, when they go to other countries, how tough their drug laws are."
The attention from Australia may have had some effect. On April 21, prosecutors announced they would not seek the death sentence for Corby but would instead recommend she be imprisoned for life. "We state that the defendant, Schapelle Corby, is legally and convincingly guilty for having committed crimes... importing narcotics," said Prosecutor Wiswantanu. "The defendant has ruined the image of Bali as a tourist destination and created the image that Bali is a haven for narcotics distribution, ruined the mentality of youngsters. The 4.2 kilograms of marijuana is a great danger for the nation and this is categorized as a transnational crime and the defendant has not confessed to her actions." But given that "the defendant is polite and has never been convicted," he would settle for life in prison instead of the hangman's noose.
While the Howard government welcomed the decision, Corby supporters lashed out at the Indonesian justice system. "They've got no case to ask for anything," said Bakir, the businessman bankrolling her defense. "The girl should be home. The girl has done nothing wrong," he said.
Neither did that decision sit well with Indonesian anti-drug activists, who demanded that Corby be executed. "We want her death," said Anak Agung Semara Adhyana, leader of the Bali chapter of Indonesia's anti-drug movement. "It is best if they give her the death sentence or life imprisonment," he said. "It is impossible for her to be set free. It would be a bad precedent for the Indonesian justice system."
At one point in the trial Adhyana and his supporters staged a placard-waving demonstration inside the courthouse demanding Corby's execution. That little bit of political theatre led to scuffles with outraged Corby family members.
The Queensland beautician claimed from the beginning she had no knowledge of the marijuana, and her attorneys attempted to introduce circumstantial evidence that she may have been the victim of a drug-smuggling ring among Australian baggage handlers who snuck contraband into the baggage of unsuspecting victims. But Indonesian prosecutors blocked all such attempts.
A prisoner in an Australian jail was prepared to testify that a convicted drug dealer was the owner of the marijuana, but the prosecutors rejected that testimony. "Looking at his background as a prisoner, the reason for him to testify before an Indonesian court is to taste freedom," the prosecutors said.
Bond University Professor of Criminology Paul Wilson testified that Corby was innocent based on interviews with her. "His opinion is not based on accurate research on the defendant and her background," prosecutors said, rejecting his testimony.
Prosecutors also rejected testimony from Corby's three traveling companions, all of whom testified that there was no marijuana in her luggage when she checked it at Brisbane Airport. Their testimony was not given "to find truth and justice," as the law requires, said the prosecutors.
But despite prosecutors' certainty that Corby was culpable, in her final defense plea, she tearfully told the court, "I cannot admit to a crime I did not commit." She was an innocent victim of drug gangs, she added in a written statement pleading for mercy. "I say again that I have no knowledge of how the marijuana came to be inside my bag," she said. She said she had already been punished enough for doing no more than failing to lock her bags. "To judges, my life at the moment is in your hands, but I would prefer that my life was in your heart," she said.
Corby's fate now rests with the Indonesian judges. Although prosecutors recommended life in prison, the judges could still sentence her to death, to life, or some set term of years in prison if they decide she is guilty. According to wire service reports, Indonesian legal observers expect her to be found guilty and sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence. If that is the case, her lawyers have vowed to appeal.
In the meantime, parties unknown are phoning in death threats to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra and consulates around the country. Indonesian diplomats have received numerous anonymous threatening letters and e-mails, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday.
And the resort island itself could pay an economic price for a Corby conviction. According to a nationwide survey of travel agents conducting last week, 68% of respondents would stop promoting Bali as a destination if Corby is convicted, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. "I believe Schapelle is innocent," one Sydney travel agent told the survey. "If she is found guilty with the evidence she has presented to the judges, I certainly will not travel to Bali or recommend or sell Bali."
Fiji or Hawaii, anyone?