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Australia's Schapelle Corby phenomenon

After nearly a decade in a Bali prison, questions about Aussie's drug-smuggling conviction continue to swirl.

Last updated: 14 Feb 2014 18:15
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Schapelle Corby, now 36, talks to reporters at Kerobokan prison in Bali, Indonesia in March 2008 [AP]

Sydney, Australia - Her piercing blue eyes filled with tears as she repeatedly smacked her forehead with her palm while the verdict was read in a language she didn't understand.

Schapelle Corby, 36, was found guilty by an Indonesian court on May 27, 2005, of attempting to smuggle 4.1kg of marijuana from Australia to Bali. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The trial of the then 27-year-old Queensland student was a real-life crime drama, and millions of viewers tuned in as Australia's television networks broadcast the verdict live from the courtroom on Indonesia's island of Bali.

"That image of her with the palm pressed against her forehead is a very moving image, no matter what you think of her innocence or guilt," former Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray told Al Jazeera.

I would like to say to the prosecutors I cannot admit to a crime I did not commit. And to the judges, my life at the moment is in your hands, but I would prefer if my life was in your hearts.

- Schapelle Corby, convicted drug-smuggler

The compelling vision of Corby standing before the judges as she tried to comfort her outraged family is seared in recent Australian history.

"An Australian caught in Bali, a place a lot of us know and go to, surrounded by people whose language she didn't speak, dumbfounded by what happened to her. We all saw that live and had [an] instant reaction. It fuelled the Schapelle phenomenon," Fray said.

With the did-she-or-didn't-she fascination, the Schapelle Corby saga continues to divide Australians.

This week, after serving nine years of her sentence, Corby was released on parole from Kerobokan prison amid a media circus, shrouded in a scarf and straw hat to conceal her appearance. A TV movie, "Schapelle", about the case was broadcast in Australia the night before.

She is currently taking refuge at a private resort with family and a television crew, after securing a reported US$1.8 million deal to tell her exclusive story.

Australian laws that usually prevent people making profits from criminal acts have been rendered powerless because of Indonesia's refusal to cooperate after the spying scandal between the two countries, meaning Corby will receive the payment.

The case is one of many facets in the increasingly fraught dynamic between Australia and Indonesia, according to Alex Oliver, polling director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

"There is lots of noise in the relationship at the moment, the Corby case being just one aspect of it," Oliver told Al Jazeera. "Australians still think overwhelmingly [that] Indonesia is a source of terrorism and a military threat."

Schapelle Corby escorted by police in Bali in January 2005 [AP]

National icon?

Recent stresses on the two countries' relationship include the furore over allegations of Australian spying, asylum seekers, and restraints on the export of live Australian cattle.

How did a convicted drug smuggler become a national icon? At the time of her arrest and after her initial imprisonment, Australian sentiment was behind Corby. Various polls showed a majority of people believed she was innocent.

During her trial and ever since, Corby has maintained that line.

"I would like to say to the prosecutors I cannot admit to a crime I did not commit. And to the judges, my life at the moment is in your hands, but I would prefer if my life was in your hearts," Corby pleaded during her testimony.

Corby's legal team claimed baggage handlers inserted the drugs into her body-board bag in a domestic drug-smuggling operation gone wrong. While never proven in court, the prospect sparked paranoia among Australian travellers. Sales in suitcase locks increased, and many Australian travellers began wrapping their luggage in plastic to prevent them from being tampered with.

Corby was even contacted by Australia's other notorious female inmate, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, whose infamous case also divided the nation. Chamberlain-Creighton was charged with killing her baby Azaria in 1980. It was later proved the child was attacked by a dingo in the Outback.

"My heart bleeds for you. I had hoped Australians had learned a lot about judging since then, but it appears they have not," Chamberlain-Creighton wrote.

'Marijuana Queen'

Part of the fascination with Schapelle extended to her family, and their dramatic, emotionally charged responses in front of the TV cameras. The Corbys were on the covers of tabloid magazines and became celebrities in their own right.

Mercedes Corby has become a celebrity in her own right [AP]

"It's helped that she is a woman, and her family have become characters in the narrative too. Her mother Rosalie, sister Mercedes and Schapelle, it's a powerful troika," said Fray. "If she was a 55-year-old man, she wouldn't be as photogenic. Let's call it for what it is."

The case and Australia's fascination with it bemused Indonesians, with scathing coverage dubbing Corby the "Marijuana Queen". The Corby case came three years after the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 202 people died, among them 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians and 28 Britons.

The trial gave rise to a visceral wave of anti-Indonesian sentiment. There were calls to cut aid and boycott travel to Bali, an economy that relies heavily on Australian tourists.

"It is almost as if Corby has come to embody those vibrant young Australians who died in the [Bali] blast... Regardless of what happens to Corby, she has served a national need for catharsis and retribution," commentator Anne Summers said at the time.

Bali's National Movement Against Narcotics said it regards Corby's release as a threat to Indonesia's youth, the country's state-run news agency Antara reported this week.

"Corby and other drug convicts should not be granted their rights, because their crimes impact the safety of Indonesia's future generation," the group's chairman Henry Yosodiningrat said.

While Corby is now free to move around Bali, under her parole conditions she cannot leave Indonesia until July 2017. Her situation is dramatically better than being in prison, but Corby may find dealing with her celebrity and notoriety on the small island challenging.

Law professor Tim Lindsey at the University of Melbourne said he believes the ongoing attention may result in an unintentional breach of parole. Indonesian authorities have since reportedly advised Corby any paid interview could breach her parole conditions.

"If the media circus continues and she's mobbed wherever she goes and it causes a disturbance and locals complain, that's a breach," Lindsey told Al Jazeera. "Her position is still vulnerable and the media hysteria will put her in a very difficult position as she seeks to comply with the parole conditions. It would be pretty difficult."

Criminal fascination

Australians have long been intrigued by stories of the country's criminals. Dating back to its convict history as a British penal settlement, certain criminals have been celebrated and even revered. The tale of notorious outlaw Ned Kelly has been immortalised twice in Hollywood films.

I have been harassed, threatened and intimidated by a group of people connected to the [web]site who believe Schapelle is innocent and the victim of a government conspiracy.

- Eamonn Duff, journalist

Yet Corby's appeal was based on the presumption of innocence, not a reflection of her deeds.

According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, each year 1,000 Australians are arrested overseas and more than 250 are in prisons around the world. Yet, the country's media spotlight is fixated soley on Corby's plight.

Today Australians are more sceptical of Corby's claims. Public opinion began to shift after the release of journalist Eamonn Duff's award-winning book on the case, Sins of the Father, which identifies links between Corby's father and a South Australian drug syndicate.

Duff said he could not comment on Corby's case because of legal constraints against the book by her family, but added he has been hounded by a fervent group of loyal Corby supporters.

"I have been harassed, threatened and intimidated by a group of people connected to the [web]site who believe Schapelle is innocent and the victim of a government conspiracy," Duff wrote.

"Hiding behind a multitude of pseudonyms, this small, cult-like group launches daily attacks against me and other journalists who write or broadcast news about Schapelle."

When she does tell her side of the story, there will undoubtedly still be questions Australians and Indonesians want answered.

Follow Geraldine Nordfeldt on Twitter: @GeraldineNord

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Al Jazeera
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