by Kalinga Seneviratne
(IPS) SYDNEY -- An envelope of white powder posted to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra this week has heated tensions between Indonesia and Australia.
A media frenzy after a Bali court on May 27 sentenced a 27-year-old Australian woman to 20 years in prison for carrying 4.1 kg of cannabis into the country is blamed for the mailing of the envelope, initially suspected of being a "bio-terror" weapon.
The hysteria created by the verdict in the case of Schapelle Corby -- which was televised live across Australia -- is reflective of the huge cultural gulf between the two neighbors -- one Muslim and Asian and the other Christian and Western.
The intense media coverage has been fuelled by consistent comparisons made here between the verdict given by Indonesian courts to the alleged mastermind of the Bali bombing of October 2002 (which killed 85 Australians) Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, and to Corby's sentence.
Bashir recently received a two and a half year jail sentence on lesser charges because the prosecution failed to prove its case, while Corby faces 20 years behind bars after her defense team failed to prove that the cannabis found in her bag at Bali airport was planted by someone at Sydney airport.
While a large number of Indonesians feel that Bashir is an innocent and well meaning Muslim cleric, who has been framed by Australia and the United States as a terror mastermind, most Australians believe that he is a terrorist let off lightly by Indonesian courts. On the other hand, they believe that "corrupt" Indonesian courts have treated unfairly an innocent, white Australian woman.
While up to 50 embassy staff were quarantined for several hours in Canberra on Wednesday as emergency officers in chemical-protection suits cleaned up the substance, which spilled on the floor when the letter was opened, Australian leaders took to the airwaves to calm emotions and repair the damage to the bilateral relationship.
Addressed to the Indonesian ambassador the envelope also included an abusive letter, which is believed to be crudely racist and whose contents the government refused to disclose.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer after initially confirming that the powder was a "biological agent," now says that further laboratory tests have indicated it is not toxic.
However, he warned Corby supporters to refrain from any retaliatory measures since her case could progress to the stage of a presidential pardon or a prisoner exchange deal, which would require negotiation at a political level between Australia and Indonesia.
"This kind of an attack on Indonesians is going to make the achievement of either of those objectives much more difficult," he said.
Federal Court Justice and chairman of the Judicial Conference of Australia, Ronald Sackville, argues that lost in the media frenzy and public hysteria about the Corby case is an important lesson in the peoples' trust of a judicial system.
"It is only if people have confidence in a court system that they will accept decisions and individual cases as the product of a fair, impartial and incorruptible process," he observed writing in 'The Australian.'
"First, apart from Corby herself and perhaps a few others, no one knows for sure if she is guilty or innocent," noted Sackville. "Notwithstanding the presumption of innocence, having a large amount of a prohibited drug in a person's luggage is ordinarily enough to establish a prima facie case against an accused in any legal system."
He added, "although criticisms have been made of the Indonesian legal system in the past, there is no evidence of any corruption in the Corby trial itself, which was, after all, conducted in the full glare of massive publicity."
In media interviews Downer also pointed to the transparency of the Indonesian legal system today, because the Corby trial was held under the glare of television cameras. Ironically that coverage contributed to the anger in Australia, where her emotions at various stages of the trial were televized across the country, especially her tearful final plea to the judges.
Downer admits that at the community level "there's outrage amongst many people in Australia over the Schapelle Corby conviction." But, he warned that "this sort of abuse and denigration of the Indonesian judicial system in particular will not go down well in Indonesia, and it may have an impact on the bilateral relationship."
Analysts say that attitudes towards Indonesia seem to be hardening following the Corby trial, despite the outpouring of support when the country was devastated by a tsunami in December last year. Media have reported that some people who donated money to the Red Cross' tsunami relief efforts have written asking for it to be returned.
Chris Nyst, a co-founder of Brisbane's Griffith University's Innocence Project, which investigates possible miscarriages of justice, argues that rather than the Indonesian judicial system, security at Australian airports should be the major issue in the Corby case since the drugs were planted in her baggage at the Sydney airport, according to her defense team.
"People just simply need to be serious and rational about this and look at it and say, 'well, the allegations that have been raised are serious and substantive and are not about what happened in Indonesia, but what happened here, what's gone wrong here, and we want an answer as to what's gone wrong here and we want it properly investigated,'" he said in an interview.
June 2, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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