How a convicted drug smuggler obsessed a nation

February 8, 2014

Rick Feneley

News and features writer

Which version of Schapelle Corby do you buy? Hapless beauty school dropout. Persecuted Aussie tourist. Victim of a criminal conspiracy. Latter-day Joan of Arc. Lying drug mule. Ganja Queen. Tragic dupe of her pot-dealing father. Magazine cover girl with selling blue eyes. Small-time bogan dope trafficker sentenced to 20 years’ jail in Bali – more than some terrorists – for stuffing a pathetic 4.2 kilograms of cannabis into her boogie board bag. Barbecue stopper.

Whichever version or combination you prefer, few among us could honestly say we have not been party to a national fixation with Corby, the now 36-year-old woman who is preparing to walk from jail, on parole in Bali, after almost 10 years behind bars.

Sister Mercedes Corby battles the media throng outside the prison.

Sister Mercedes Corby battles the media throng outside Kerobokan Prison on Friday. Photo: Justin McManus Photo: Justin McManus

Last night Indonesian Justice Minister Amir Syamsuddin issued a statement announcing her parole had been approved.


”She has fulfilled all the substantive administrative requirements as stated in the regulations.”

The Corby case has had some real impact in Australia, not least the option for travellers to cling-wrap their luggage before departing international airports.

Back in May 2005, when Corby was 27 and most Australians still believed she was innocent, three Indonesian judges did not buy her story: that baggage handlers, probably in Australia, possibly in Bali, must have planted that marijuana in her bag.

Much of the immediate reaction from Australia was outraged, visceral, hostile and driven by an often ugly nationalism. Waves of tourists in Aussie-flag singlets had long laid claim to Bali as Down Under’s tropical annexe, but now thousands of them were declaring in snap polls that they would boycott the idyllic island. Many wanted a recall of the millions in aid sent to help Indonesia recover from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The ingratitude!

Editorials deplored the ”barbaric” Indonesian prison system and radio shock-jock Malcolm T. Elliott called the judges and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ”monkeys”. Elliott and broadcaster Alan Jones were appalled that the Corby trial, though run in an Indonesian court, was not conducted in English.

The Indonesian consulate-general in Perth received an anonymous letter containing two bullets, with a message that reportedly said: ”If Schapelle Corby is not released immediately you will all receive one of these bullets through the brain. All Indonesians out now – go home you animals.”

In 2007 The International Journal of the Humanities published ”Seeing Culture, Seeing Schapelle” by Anthony Lambert, who described Corby as ”the daughter who is Australia”. He wrote: ”Schapelle occupies the place of the mythical Australian beach girl … now trapped in a ‘strange’ land, in non-white hands, and at the mercy of foreign systems and institutions.”

But what has made Australians invest so much emotion in the daughter, if not of the nation, of a Gold Coast fish and chip shop owner? Why did Corby’s plight ignite so much more sympathy than was expressed for other Australians held captive on foreign soil, such as the so-called Bali Nine heroin mules, or David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib in Guantanamo Bay?

Is it that Corby, unlike the Bali Nine, has always proclaimed her innocence? But then, so have Hicks and Habib.

Is it that Corby’s destination was Bali? Despite the 2002 terrorist bombings, when 88 Australians were among the 202 people slaughtered in Bali, Indonesia remains high Australians’ foreign holiday destinations, second only to New Zealand.

”It could have been me or my child because we’ve been to Bali too – like the song says,” reasons an expert on Australia’s consular affairs, Alex Oliver, at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Or could the answer be much more confronting? That Corby is the most photogenic and telegenic of the Australians trapped overseas? That, in a line-up, she would win the beauty contest? Would she have attracted so much attention if she looked like Renae Lawrence of the Bali Nine?

”That’s a very good question,” says Fiona Connolly, editor-in-chief of Woman’s Day. It is one that stops her for a moment. ”The answer is … being photogenic certainly didn’t hurt her cause. Those piercing eyes are certainly etched into the memory of many Australians, especially my readers.”

Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at the Australian National University, does not want to venture an opinion on the reasons for the fascination.

”But I will say that if we start with David Hicks, 2001, right through to today with Peter Greste [the Australian journalist jailed in Egypt], the Corby case is absolutely the shining light of how the media placed the spotlight on her situation and that generated a lot of debate … and it created a situation where successive Australian governments have felt compelled to respond to Schapelle Corby in ways that they haven’t responded to other equally meritorious consular cases.”

”An understandable conclusion but not true,” says Alexander Downer, who was foreign affairs minister in the Howard government when Corby was arrested at Denpasar Airport in October 2004 and for the 2½ years that followed her trial. He does not want to speculate, either, on the reasons for the national obsession, but he says Corby received the support she warranted. ”Governments can’t be driven by a media campaign.”

When Fairfax called on Wednesday, Downer had not yet heard the news from Indonesia: Justice Minister Amir Syamsuddin had indicated he was likely to sign Corby’s parole documents by week’s end. ”Oh,” Downer said, ”just in time for her to catch the movie on Channel Nine.”

In an exquisitely happy coincidence for the Nine Network, it had already scheduled Schapelle, the movie, to screen on Monday night, and has now brought it forward to Sunday. The film may be interpreted as leaving room for doubt about Corby’s guilt, but it is partly based on Sins of the Father, the book by Fairfax Media journalist Eamonn Duff, who concludes Corby took the rap for her late father Mick’s drug syndicate.

Downer does not offer an opinion on Corby’s guilt or otherwise – ”How would I know?” – but recalls: ”There were talkback radio hosts who were swearing black-and-blue she was innocent. Then … they changed their minds. I don’t recall there being any particular reason for it, but there was huge sympathy for her to start with, and then almost overnight it evaporated.

”Some media became more forensic and examined the record of the father. And I think the performance of the family – the public went off them after a while. I think perhaps the public saw it as a melodrama. The free-Schapelle campaign dried up.”

It didn’t happen quite overnight, but support for Corby did collapse. By early June in 2005, less than a week after the guilty verdict, 51 per cent of Australians believed she was not guilty, a Morgan poll found. By August 2010, a Nielsen poll found only one in 10 respondents believed Corby was innocent, 41 per cent said she was guilty and 48 per cent did not know. Her fragile mental state at this point was obvious to Fairfax Media correspondent Tom Allard, who she greeted at Kerobokan jail with a manic stare: ”Hey, are you from Krypton?”

Faith in Corby may have waned, but less so the fascination.

The Corby family circus fed the fixation. Schapelle’s half-brother James Kisina, the one who was travelling with her when she was arrested with her boogie board, would be jailed in Queensland in 2006 for his part in a drug-related home invasion. Seven years later, last November, he would be fined for possessing cocaine.

Mercedes Corby, the loyal sister who will take Schapelle into her Kuta home under her bail conditions, was forced to fend off drug claims made by a former friend, Jodie Power. While Mercedes admitted smoking some pot as a teenager, she would successfully sue the Seven Network for broadcasting Power’s allegations.

Mercedes would also appear as a Ralph magazine cover girl in 2008 and be paid a reported $50,000 for its spread of bikini shots. It was a fraction of the $500,000 that Schapelle could have commanded for a ”bare-all bikini shoot”, according to The Daily Telegraph.

But that was back in late 2005, when Schapelle’s stocks were higher. After all, the men’s magazine FHM had revealed its readers voted heavily for Schapelle in its poll to identify the nation’s ”100 hottest women”, but it was during her trial and the editor had omitted her because it may have been seen ”in slightly poor taste”.

Taste has not been a persistent consideration in this saga. Only on Thursday the Corby family denied it had ever retained Kerry Smith-Douglas as a lawyer after she went on Nine’s Today show and, when asked how Schapelle would celebrate her freedom, replied: ”She’ll probably pop a cork of champagne and then roll up a big marijuana joint the size of a cigar and then kick back and enjoy herself.” That was in ”bad taste and ill-informed”, the family said.

Amid the seamy sideshow, many may forget the depth of their initial sympathy for Corby. Soon after the guilty verdict, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton had sent a letter to the prisoner: ”My heart bleeds for you.”

They were Australia’s ”two most celebrated women of crime”, commentator Anne Summers wrote at the time. A dingo really had taken Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru, and now the baby’s long-persecuted mother was reaching out to another apparent victim of injustice.

”Regardless of what happens to Corby, she has served a national need for catharsis and retribution,” Summers wrote. ”She can never escape this.”

Catharsis and retribution? For the Bali bombings. The Corby verdict had become a channel for Australian anger. The Telegraph splashed on the ”nation’s fury” over the 2½⁄ years’ jail for the bombings ”mastermind” Abu Bakar Bashir when compared with the 20 years for Corby, although the Indonesian prosecutors never did prove Bashir was the mastermind. The Gold Coast Bulletin reported: ”From a window in the tower of the Kerobokan prison, the evil eyes of Bali bomber Imam Samudra stare down on Schapelle Corby.”

Anthony Lambert, in his paper on Corby, argues the Australian response entangled notions of female vulnerability, Schapelle ”as national daughter”, xenophobia, paranoid nationalism and the ”dangers faced by the ‘good’, the ‘innocent’ and the ‘democratic’ in the West”.

Fiona Connolly, at Woman’s Day, says most Australians and her readers believe – regardless of Corby’s guilt or innocence – that the punishment did not fit the crime. ”In the same way Lindy Chamberlain did, Schapelle really gets to the heart of the Australian psyche, which refuses to accept injustice.”

”It was a bloody long sentence,” Downer agrees. Or as John Jarratt, the star of Wolf Creek, sang in a soulful YouTube plea to then prime minister Julia Gillard in December 2012: ”Who cares if she’s guilty / Who cares if she’s not / I care that she’s lonely / And left there to rot.”

Donald Rothwell, the international law expert, points out another reason for the intense focus on Corby: the extraordinary access allowed for news cameras, from the courtroom to the Kerobokan jail. ”There were really no contemporary images of Hicks and Habib while they were detained, and it obviously had an impact on the way the media covered the stories.”

The ratings for Schapelle on Sunday night will be a measure of the endurance of the national obsession with Corby. If a freed Corby gets to see the film, it will add no cheer to her celebrations in Bali. Champagne may have to suffice.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

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