Schapelle Corby, Drug Trafficker and Australian Obsession, Returns Home

Article by Damien Cave and Isabelle Kwai  /
The New York Times  /
May 27, 2017  /
Click here to view original  /

Schapelle Corby left Australia for Bali in 2004 as a beach girl, another Gold Coast surfer who said she was just seeking a vacation and some waves.

On Sunday morning, she finally returned home, but as a convicted drug trafficker — and one of Australia’s most well-known, if not favorite, criminals.

A mob of reporters and television cameras greeted her arrival in Brisbane just after 5 a.m. — and less than 24 hours after she created an Instagram account, tens of thousands of followers had already signed up for a glimpse of her new life.

“There’s not very many Australian drug traffickers that you could say are media stars,” said Anthony Lambert, a senior lecturer in cultural studies at Macquarie University. “She’s a celebrity prisoner, which is a relatively new phenomenon.”

“Our Schapelle,” as some Australians call her, has long been seen as more than just a criminal or — as some consider her — a victim. Through the years, Ms. Corby, 39, has reflected Australia’s fears and fascinations with Southeast Asia, and her case has raised issues of gender and social class.

“I think half the population saw themselves in her, saw her in a bad situation in no fault of their own,” said Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in social science at the University of Melbourne. “I think the other half looked down at her, saw her as the equivalent of white trash.”

The case began with Ms. Corby’s 2004 arrest on charges of smuggling a few pounds of marijuana into Indonesia in her boogie-board bag. Scrutiny in the news media intensified with her trial, where she professed her innocence but received a 20-year sentence, and continued through her tabloid-chronicled stretch in a Balinese prison, and now her deportation and return.

Ms. Corby’s interviews from behind bars, and her 2006 memoir, endeared her to many Australians, and her government put enormous diplomatic pressure on Indonesia to reduce her sentence, allowing her to leave the country ahead of her initial 20-year prison sentence.

Her family pulled the news media close to help campaign for her freedom, but has since tried to push the reporters and photographers away. On Sunday, the family released a statement thanking supporters and asking again to be left alone.

But the past week has shown just how unlikely that may be.

In Indonesia over the past few days, as news spread of the imminent deportation of Ms. Corby, who was paroled in 2014, a crowd of local and Australian journalists camped outside the villa in Kuta where she had been serving her parole, in hopes of catching a glimpse of her. All week, Australian television news programs have featured video clips of Ms. Corby swimming, wandering through a market and sharing meals with her boyfriend.

Australian newscasters also filmed Ms. Corby’s mother as she dragged in a trash receptacle outside the Corby family’s home in Logan City, Queensland. In one video, journalists ran alongside Mercedes Corby, Schapelle Corby’s sister, as someone asked: “How’s Schapelle?”

“Better if you would leave her alone,” she said.

In Indonesia, Ms. Corby’s departure has mostly been greeted with a sentiment of “good riddance.”

“If you talk to people in the markets or in food stalls, no one knows about it,” said Anton Muhajir, who writes a blog on environmental issues and current events in Indonesia, and has reported on the Corby case for foreign news organizations. “This just doesn’t have the same attraction in Bali as it does in Australia.”

Indonesian police stand guard at the airport as they prepare for the deportation of Schapelle Corby in Bali, Indonesia. Credit Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
Indonesians who have followed the case say that Australians have made too much of it, managing to insult Indonesia in the process. “I’m very surprised at how the Australians have overreacted to this,” said Retno Napitupulu, a bank worker in Jakarta. “They have to follow our laws.”

Indeed, Australian arguments over Ms. Corby’s case can also be seen as arguments about their Asian neighbor. Among those who believe in her innocence, Indonesia — a large Muslim country that is one of Australia’s closest and most important neighbors — tends to be cast as the villain.

In fact, Ms. Corby may have escaped a death sentence because of the timing of her conviction. It came during the first year of the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s first directly elected president, and she benefited from official eagerness to turn the page on more than three decades of authoritarian rule.

In contrast, two Australian men were among seven foreigners executed on drug convictions in 2015, after a new president, Joko Widodo, said that Indonesia faced a drug abuse crisis that amounted to a “national emergency.”

Experts have pointed out that Ms. Corby and the continued interest in her are partly a function of gender and race. “Schapelle Corby was a white woman, which really goes a long way in Western countries” toward casting a person accused of a crime as a victim, Dr. Lambert said.

At the same time, the obsession may reflect the way some Australians — or at least Australian news outlets — view Indonesia, and the ways those views are evolving.

“It was very naïve for a lot of Australians to think that they could somehow impact the legal system of another country,” Dr. Lambert said. “In some ways, it’s a little bit racist because it’s imposing our ethic or code.”

“We weren’t really prepared to see Bali and Indonesia in terms of its own sovereignty, which is something we’ve learned,” he said.