Schapelle Corby, the drug mule whose story captivated millions in Australia

Freed on parole after nine years in a Bali jail, Schapelle Corby stands to make a fortune from selling her story. But will she be allowed to keep it?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 5:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 February, 2014, 3:43pm

The story of Schapelle Corby, the Australian who spent more than nine years in a notorious Indonesian jail for a crime she says she did not commit, has fascinated the public in her home country.

The dramatic courtroom scenes of Corby breaking down in tears as she was convicted and her sister, Mercedes, screaming from the sidelines were watched live by millions of Australians.

They were also the start of a national obsession with the beauty school dropout.

As she left jail on the resort island of Bali on Monday on parole, camera crews and photographers - many of whom had flown from Australia especially for her release - fought to get a shot of her. The media circus does not look like slowing down, with a bidding war reportedly in full swing back home for her first post-prison interview.

The Australian media have carefully tracked every development in the case of Corby, arrested in 2004 with 4.1kg of marijuana hidden in her surfing gear as she arrived on Bali.

From the sordid conditions in Kerobokan jail - where prisoners live in cramped, filthy cells and drug abuse is widespread - to her descent into mental illness, television channels and newspapers lapped up every detail.

Every aspect of her past life has been documented, from her dropping out of beauty school to working in her family's fish and chip shop and spending time in Japan, where she lived with her Japanese husband before their relationship broke down.

Mercedes Corby told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in a 2012 interview that her sister's case had "struck a chord" because she seemed like any normal Australian going on holiday to Bali, only to get caught up in a nightmare.

"A lot of people come to Bali and a lot of people love Bali. I just think it was a bit of a shock," she told the ABC. "She could have been your sister, your daughter, your friend just going on holiday, and this is what happened."

Despite her conviction and sentencing to 20 years in jail, Corby is routinely portrayed as a victim of a drugs syndicate and Indonesia's corrupt justice system. She has fuelled this perception, steadfastly maintaining her innocence and claiming that the drugs were planted inside her bodyboard bag.

"When I flew to Bali on October 8, 2004, I imagined my biggest problem was going to be deciding which sarong to wear with which bikini," Corby wrote in her 2006 autobiography My Story, co-authored with Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella.

While other Australians have been jailed on the resort island for drugs offences - notably members of the heroin-smuggling gang known as the "Bali Nine" - none has attracted the same attention as Corby.

Her good looks, her relative youth - she was jailed at the age of 27 - and appearance of naivety have all added to the image of her as a victim.

The question of her guilt has been pored over by the Australian media during the past decade and the closely watched case has spawned a string of conspiracy theories, some pointing to Corby's guilt and others to her innocence.

Despite the widespread sympathy back home, the view in Indonesia is starkly different.

Many see Corby as a common criminal who simply broke the country's tough anti-drugs laws.

Indonesian lawmakers and an anti-drugs group have strongly criticised the decision to grant her parole, which was taken by Justice Minister Amir Syamsuddin three days before her release.

Her well-documented mental health problems - she spent time in hospital in Bali to be treated for depression - were used to support her plea for presidential clemency, which reduced her sentence by five years.

She also received regular remissions for good behaviour, which is a routine procedure under the Indonesian justice system.

Her jail term now officially comes to an end in 2016, but she will have to stay in Indonesia a further year to comply with her parole conditions.

In recent years, she appeared to be in a better state of mental health and was occasionally spotted at the prison in good spirits. After her release, she is expected to live with Mercedes and her Balinese husband in their modest home in a backstreet in Kuta, a tourist district in south Bali visited by huge numbers of Australians every year.

Now the focus of her story has shifted to the potential mega-bucks media deals.

She was whisked away by Australia's Seven Network, which reports say has offered her as much as A$3 million (HK$21 million) for an exclusive interview. Other media reports have said a Seven interview deal would be worth A$1.3 million plus expenses, but the network has declined to comment.

It did issue a news bulletin that cited a Corby family statement calling the reported sums ridiculous.

The telling of her story has already brought the Corby family into conflict with Australia's Proceeds of Crime Act, which mandates that crime should not pay.

In 2007, an Australian court ordered Corby, her sister Mercedes and Mercedes' Indonesian husband Wayan Widyartha to hand over A$128,800 they earned from a book and magazine interview deal.

Under the law, Australian courts don't have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that crimes happened. The lesser legal test on the balance of probabilities applies.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) said in a statement "it would not be appropriate to speculate on the likelihood of future legal proceedings".

Christian Juebner, a Melbourne-based lawyer who specialises in prosecuting and defending proceeds of crime cases, said it was "highly likely" the AFP would seek a court order to seize the proceeds of any media deal.

"I can't image that the AFP will stand by when it has been so well publicised that she is receiving, directly or indirectly, the benefit through her notoriety ..., without taking a stance, to say: 'Well, people just can't benefit from their criminal activity,'" he said.

Natalie Skead, a University of Western Australia associate professor who wrote her doctoral thesis on Australian proceeds-of -crime laws, said the fact that Corby had broken Indonesian law and would remain in Indonesia on parole until 2017 did not put her beyond the reach of Australian law.

She expects the AFP would seek a seizure ruling, but said Corby's best hope would be to ask a judge for discretion. "The court can refuse to make a confiscation order if there is some social, cultural or educational value in the product," Skead said.

Max Markson, an Australian celebrity manager, said Corby's story could be worth more than the story of two Australian miners paid between A$2.7 million and A$3 million in 2006 for telling how they survived for two weeks trapped in a gold mine.

"The miners was the biggest chequebook journalism story in Australia and this would probably be around the same or even more," he said.

Markson did not see proceeds of crime law as an insurmountable obstacle. "If there's A$3 million at stake, they'll be having lawyers on it," Markson said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press