Emotions cloud the issue in Bali drug case

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2005, 12:00am

Schapelle Corby has attracted far more sympathy - and controversy - than most people who find themselves in her predicament.

The plight of the young Australian beauty therapist caught with more than 4kg of marijuana in Bali has sparked outrage in her home country.

Emotions reached a high on Friday, when three Indonesian judges sentenced Corby to 20 years in prison.

The jail term has prompted an outpouring of sympathy for Corby and much criticism of the Indonesian justice system. Regrettably, some critics have gone further. Indonesian diplomats in Australia have received death threats as a result of the case. Now, it is even threatening to damage diplomatic relations between the two countries. There is a need for calm - and a more objective view.

People suspected of international drug smuggling do not normally arouse such passions. And there is nothing particularly unusual about the facts of Corby's case. She was stopped by Indonesian customs officers in October and found to have drugs in her bag. Anyone arrested in such circumstances, whether in Indonesia or elsewhere in the world, is going to find it very difficult to convince a court of their innocence.

Corby's defence is that the drugs were planted in her luggage by others. This may or may not be true. But the argument is not, by itself, sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt about her conviction. If it were, every drugs courier would make similar claims. The situation would be the same under most legal systems, including Hong Kong. The defence should be properly investigated. But compelling evidence is needed to support it. And it has not, so far, been forthcoming.

There is no doubt that the 20-year sentence is harsh. But by Indonesian standards it might be described as lenient. If Corby is guilty, she should have been aware of the risks.

It is surprising in such circumstances that polls have shown more than 90 per cent of Australians to believe Corby is innocent. This has little to do with the quality of the evidence against her. It is a consequence of her being a young, attractive woman and an 'all-Australian girl'.

If the suspect had been an overweight male Hells Angel, the sympathy levels would surely have been much lower. Indeed, a number of Australians have found themselves in similar situations, in Indonesia and elsewhere, without striking the same emotional chord.

There are reasons to doubt the ability of the Indonesian courts to deliver justice. They have long been plagued by problems. Critics have been quick to point out that Muslim leader Abu Bakar Bashir was given only a two-and-a-half-year term by an Indonesian court this year for conspiracy to commit the Bali nightclub bombings which claimed more than 200 lives. Many of the victims were Australian. This was an extremely light sentence. But it is of little relevance to the drugs case.

Dangerous drugs continue to be a source of great concern around the world. A 'people's war' against illicit narcotics was stepped up in the mainland last week, after officials described the situation as 'grim'. The United States is rethinking its anti-drugs strategy. In Hong Kong, with our relatively open borders, drug smuggling remains a big problem. There have recently been some spectacular seizures here by law enforcement agencies.

The syndicates will never be beaten by handing out long sentences to the 'mules' who smuggle their drugs and take all the risks. But sentences must be tough enough to provide a deterrent.

A more productive strategy is to step up border checks and - especially - to make the best use of intelligence. This should enable law-enforcement agencies to strike at the heart of the smuggling operations and bring the kingpins to justice. It might also help prevent young people like Corby getting themselves into so much trouble.