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April 2, 2005 - The New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)

Accused Aussie Drug Runner Battles From Behind Bars

By Greg Ansley

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

An extraordinary drama is gripping Australia as a woman fights for her life in a Balinese court against a backdrop of conflicting emotions and suspicions, drug syndicates, diplomatic relations and even natural disaster.

Schapelle Corby, a 27-year-old student of beauty therapy, faces charges of drug trafficking that, if proven, could put her in front of a firing squad. In jail since October last year, Corby is now awaiting a verdict after her defence wrapped up its case in sensational style this week.

Corby's plight is far from unique: three Australians have been executed in Asia for trafficking in drugs, others have a death sentence hovering over their heads, and most of the almost 200 Australians at present in foreign jails are there because of narcotics.

But Corby has touched the Australian psyche, generating an increasing tide of public and media support, convincing a Gold Coast millionaire to bankroll her defence, generating expressions of sympathy from Prime Minister John Howard, and prompting intervention at senior Government levels.

The case has also elicited unusual public comment by the Australian Federal Police, prompted an investigation into a hitherto unsuspected domestic drug route through the nation's airports, and publicly identified its alleged ringleader -- who, in reply, appeared on television on Thursday night to deny the charges, reportedly for a fee of A$15,000 ($16,200).

On the internet, three websites have been created to champion Corby's freedom, and opinion in online forums is overwhelmingly in her favour.

Such has been the strength of feeling in Australia that the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra -- disturbed by what has been emerging as a popular assault on the integrity of its country's justice system - issued a press statement warning that "trial by press and insisting on hearsay evidence will only weaken Ms Corby's case".

The bare facts of the case are simple. Corby arrived at Bali's Denpasar airport last October for a holiday with her sister Mercedes, who is married to an Indonesian and lives on the island.

With her she carried a boogie board, packed in a protective cover. When customs officers opened the cover, they found a large package containing 4.1kg of cannabis. Corby readily admitted that it was her luggage, but vehemently denied any knowledge of the illicit cargo. Corby has since been in custody in Krobokan prison, charged with trafficking.

Under Indonesian law this crime ranks with the assassination of the President, terrorism, piracy causing death and premeditated murder.

Amnesty International last year estimated that at least 30 prisoners were on death row for drug-related crimes, including 20 foreigners. Last year, an Indian and two Thais were executed for trafficking, a fate that Corby could also face if convicted.

Her defence rests on the claim that the drugs were planted in her bag by a syndicate that used airport staff to stuff illicit consignments into the luggage of unsuspecting passengers after it had been checked in, and remove it at the other end before the bags were collected.

Her lawyers argue that somehow the chain broke down and Corby's bag was loaded on to the flight to Bali before the cannabis could be removed.

Television coverage of a tearful and visually wholesome Corby has aroused sympathy back home.

There is a wide belief that no one could be as stupid as to loosely pack a power of dope into an easily opened boogie board bag and try to sneak it into a country that is inherently suspicious of surfers, and which openly warns visitors that possession of any substantial amount of drugs will mean death.

In all its travel advice, and even in its passports, the Australian Government also warns travellers against drugs: "In some countries ... drug offences carry the death penalty or life imprisonment. Don't assume 'soft' drugs carry milder penalties. Penalties even for marijuana or alcohol can be severe."

Corby has also embodied the lurking fear in most travelling Australians of being thrown into Third World jails for crimes they did not commit, a fear that Corby's potent media machine has capitalised on.

The hub of this machine is a self-made, Gold Coast millionaire, Ron Bakir, who was so touched by her plight that he opened his chequebook and honed his considerable flair for publicity on Corby's behalf.

Bakir, who owns a chain of mobile phone stores and goes by the by the name of Mad Ron, has set up a legal team to backstop Corby's Indonesian counsel and has lashed Canberra for its perceived failure to act adequately on her behalf.

Bakir enlisted the heavyweight support of Bond University professor Paul Wilson, one of Australia's foremost criminologists, and former New South Wales drug squad detective Bruce Griffen, who both flew to Bali to express their belief that Corby did not fit the profile of a drug smuggler -- or even a drug user -- and was innocent.

Supporting Bakir and a generally sympathetic media is a grassroots movement that starts with the Help Free Schapelle fund set up by long-time family friend Jodie Power and continues with websites and internet forum debates.

The site urges: "We must stand up and be heard!!! This is a complete injustice". Another,, encourages visitors to flood Indonesian consulates with threats to boycott all travel to Bali and Indonesia until Corby is freed.

A third,, has established an online petition from "citizens of Planet Earth demanding the release of Schapelle Corby".

No other previous unfortunate caught with drugs abroad has aroused such fervent sympathy and support.

The Australian Government takes a hard line against drug use and trafficking, and most Australians believe that if people are foolish enough to take the risk, they should be prepared for the consequences -- albeit generally short of execution, which most oppose.

There was outrage when Australians Brian Chambers, Kevin Barlow and Michael McAuliffe were hanged in Malaysia for drug offences. Former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke even strained relations with Kuala Lumpur by describing the sentences as "barbaric", but the anger was directed at the penalty, not the conviction.

Far less sympathy has been expressed, if any at all, for Nguyen Tuong Van, a 24-year-old Melbourne salesman on death row in Singapore, 45-year-old Le My Linh, sentenced to death in Vietnam, or two other Australian women facing a similar fate in the same country.

Nor has there been a great deal of public warmth for Suzanne Schuitman, an Australian arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle 2.3kg of cocaine from the French Caribbean island of Martinique to London, despite, like Corby, claiming to have been an unwitting mule for drug traffickers.

Schuitman jumped bail, fled to Canada and is now back in Australia, where Foreign Minister Alexander Downer duly invited Martinique authorities to initiate extradition proceedings if they wanted her back.

Like Corby, Schuitman blasted Canberra for not doing enough to help her. But Canberra's hands are tied when one of its nationals is in the hands of another country's legal system.

It can advise and offer support and succour, but it has no legal right to intervene "even when [local legal processes] would appear by Australian standards to be unfair or unnecessarily arduous".

In dealing with the Indonesian legal system there are additional and powerful sensitivities. Canberra and Jakarta have long had a difficult and touchy relationship. A thaw in the late 1990s retreated to deep freeze with the Australian-led intervention in East Timor.

Things have been getting back on track since the election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australia's generous response to the devastating Christmas tsunami and this week's earthquake.

The President would have been in Australia this week on a ground-breaking visit had it not been for the latest emergency.

Canberra had already nibbled at this nascent diplomatic capital by criticising the light sentence handed down on radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakir Bashir for his role in the Bali bombings, and the more recent upgrading of its warnings against travel in Indonesia. The Government has been markedly reluctant to be seen to be again sticking its nose into Indonesia and its justice system.

Even so, Downer was moved to note: "It would be legitimate to ask why Corby would take dope worth A$40,000 [$43,400] on the street in Australia to Bali, where it is much cheaper to buy." Added Prime Minister John Howard, a former lawyer: "I have taken a personal interest [in Corby's case] in the sense that I have been concerned, on the face of it, about some aspects of it."

More significantly, when Corby's defence team produced new evidence in the form of John Patrick Ford, on remand in Victoria on charges including rape and burglary, the Government set out to clear the path, despite open scepticism from the Australian Federal Police.

Ford claimed to have heard two cellmates discussing the Corby case and laughing that she would be shot for what had been a bungled domestic transit operation on behalf of an alleged drug czar, Ronnie Verganza.

Ford said the men had said the dope had been loaded into her luggage without her knowledge by baggage handlers in Brisbane, and should have been removed in Sydney. Instead, the connection was missed and it flew on to Bali.

Under a bilateral agreement, Indonesia had to ask Canberra to send Ford to Bali to give evidence. In practice, Indonesian Justice Minister Dr Hamid Awaludin told The Australian, his Australian counterpart, Chris Ellison had telephoned and urged Jakarta to make the request.

When the request came, it was granted with alacrity, with federal taxpayers footing the bill.

Ford duly went to Bali, gave his evidence - naming Verganza, who has since firmly denied the allegations - and returned home, something of a hero to a nation that fairly or unfairly largely regards Indonesian justice as an oxymoron.

A Lowy Institute poll showed this week that Indonesia was among the neighbours and regional powers least trusted by Australians. Amnesty articulated their view of the legal system, noting "widely acknowledged problems [and] evidence that trials in death penalty cases have, in some cases, failed to uphold international standards for fairness".

On the net forum, one visitor complained of language barriers faced by Corby and "I dare say a lot of prejudism [sic] against tourists or non-Muslims". Said another: "If she's found guilty, let's riot outside the Indonesian Embassy."

At least at home Corby is not short of friends.

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