Nine years ago, a young Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, was imprisoned in Bali for drug smuggling. Her story has gripped the Australian public, no more so than now, when it has been announced she will be let out on parole. In a coincidence which must feel heaven-sent to the producers, the film about her ordeal, scheduled to be shown on Monday, will now be broadcast Sunday night.
Schapelle was a beauty school student when she went on holidays to Bali in 2004 and was promptly arrested when above four kilos of marijuana were detected in her boogie board bag in the customs hall. She was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Since then, she has been detained in Kerobokan jail. She is now 36 years old.
Schapelle always protested her innocence. She said the drugs must have been planted in her bag, which had no way of locking it. The baggage-handlers at Brisbane airport were considered to be suspects, but were eventually cleared.
She won’t be able to fly straight home to Australia. Her parole must be served out on the island of Bali, and it is expected she will go to stay with her sister, Mercedes, who lives in Kuta. It will be July 25 2017 before she is totally free to return home. The conditions of her parole are light, she merely has to promise to stay drug-free, to dress neatly and report in once a month for counseling. She plans to work for her brother-in-law, designing bikinis.
The Schapelle Corby case has often been compared to that of Lindy Chamberlain, the woman who was convicted of killing her baby, Azaria, whilst claiming all along she was taken by a dingo. Just as then, opinions have been fiercely divided over the innocence or guilt of the accused. Lindy Chamberlain was eventually acquitted. As with Schapelle, a movie was made, with Lindy played by Meryl Streep. The “did she or didn’t she do it?” discourse carried on long after Lindy Chamberlain was released after serving three and a half years of her life sentence, and continues to this day. Did the dingo really get the baby in the Uluru campsite? Lindy Chamberlain’s stoical and unemotional expressions did not help her gain sympathy. This is the opposite with Schapelle.
No doubt because Schapelle was so young and so pretty, her story has always grabbed headlines too, but it has done more than that. It became something of a national obsession with the Aussies. Even in prison, pictures of her are alarmingly attractive, her smooth clear face and her wide, baby blue eyes, often glistening with tears. How could such a sweet lovely girl be slammed away for so long is the underlying concern. The tabloids dubbed her “Our Schappelle” as if she was everyone’s daughter, an innocent abroad, cruelly captured. At the time of her conviction and sentencing, three-quarters of the population fervently believed she was not guilty.
She is the daughter of a coal miner and a fish and chip shop owner from Queensland where she grew up in the sunshine state in what is colloquially called a “bogan” family. The unusual name is a clue. A book by Eamon Duff, Sins of the Father, suggested that her father, Mick, now deceased, had been part of a drug smugglers syndicate. Her half-brother, James Kisina, also went to jail in 2006 in a home-bust for drugs, while sister Mercedes has had to defend herself from pot-smoking allegations. Duff thinks that Schapelle is “absolutely guilty” and that she carried the drugs for her father, but he has sympathy for the long years of imprisonment.
The marijuana that was found in Schapelle’s unlocked boogie board bag was not dry leaf. It was “skunk” the much more powerful resin. It earned her the Indonesian nickname Ratu Ganja (Marijuana Queen). The media there have consistently ignored her, even as she generated unprecedented column inches, talkback show feedback and now, a telemovie about her plight. Not to mention the hours and hours of lively debate in backyards and over barbeques for almost a decade. Was this girl a drug mule or a naïve victim? Many a fight would break out over the answer.
One theory for the vivid interest is that Australia loves its “battlers” and there is a deep cultural sympathy for the underdog. She has been attributed with the “Gallipoli spirit” and there is a history of romantic villains, going right back to Ned Kelly. Another theory, akin to the ongoing debate over Amanda Knox is that there is an assumption of innocence associated with good looks. Commentators have pointed out that the “Bali Nine” another group of young Australians detained in 2005, have remained practically invisible in the media ever since. They do not have the faces that sell supermarket magazines.
A provoking argument has been put forward by academic Anthony Lambert, from the Maquarie University. He sees in the case a deep underlying fear of “them and us” and attributes it largely to the timing. Schapelle was arrested just three years after the first Bali bomb which killed 88 Australians among a total of 202 victims. There was a “War on Terror” going on, and Schapelle had got caught behind the enemy line. Lambert published a paper in the Journal of the Humanities, where he wrote that she became the “visual symbol of Australian identity and values.” It made the issue very black and white, very polarized. The “foriegness” of the sentencing, and its length, 20 years, seemed disproportionate to many.
Abu Bakir Bashir, at the same time accused of masterminding the Bali bombs, got two years. The key difference is in the word “accused.” This did not stop public outrage. The three who were convicted of carrying out the bombings went to the firing squad but not until 2008. This did not halt the talkback radio jocks. Notoriously, Malcolm T Elliott on Radio 2GB said on air that “The judges don’t even speak English mate; they’re straight out the trees.”
Big names weighed in. On another radio station 2UE, Russell Crowe said that Australia, as a country, could not stand by “and let a young woman rot away in a foreign prison.” The then Prime Minister, John Howard, worried that as a nation whose youngsters loved to travel so much, it was a case that touched everyone directly.
Writing in The Spectator in 2005, Eric Ellis called this level of hysteria “xeonophobic” and noted that most countries would have put Elliott in front of a race relations board for his remark.
Indonesia was the “enemy” and Schapelle was the prisoner-of-war. Relations between the two neighbours continue to be strained. Recent spying allegations haven’t helped. Indonesia continues to be baffled by the “incomprehensible” Australian reaction and “inexplicable display of emotion”. There were 1,291 let out on parole on Friday, Schapelle Corby just one of that number. The human rights minister refused to single her out for any comment, stating “We’re a dignified country and we uphold the laws.” Those who were eligible for parole were released and that was that. To them, she is not special.
There are 324 Australians under arrest in other countries today and 218 of them are behind bars, yet no one else gets the attention of Schapelle Corby. “Did she or didn’t she do it?” goes on getting asked, but as time has gone by, the polls have shifted. In 2010 Nielsen found only one in ten still trusting in her innocence, with half remaining “don’t knows.”
The media frenzy will accelerate again now, as the cameras assemble in anticipation of her walking free, and the telemovie goes to air.
Some broadcasters stationed out on Bali have already hired helicopters. The next big skirmish will be the cheque book journalism and who gets the rights to her story and for how much. The family have already profited considerably from deals with women’s magazines. Rumors suggest she could get as much as $3 million. We certainly haven’t heard the last of Schapelle Corby.
Alexander Downer, who was the minister for foreign affairs at the time of her arrest, has cautioned against rushing to sell the story. His advice to all the family is just to learn to accept what has happened and move on and rebuild her life. “Perhaps she was guilty, perhaps she wasn’t” he said “We don’t know.” And there’s the rub. After all these years of wondering, falling out, fighting over it, the people want to know. The legal sage that has engrossed a nation for years will not cease when Schapelle Corby is released from that Bali prison.
By Kate Henderson