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Indonesian legal system under scrutiny

ELEANOR HALL: Well, as we've been hearing, with the lives of several suspected Australian drug traffickers likely to be in the hands of Indonesian judges, scrutiny of the legal proceedings is likely to remain intense.

There are stark differences between the Indonesian and Australian legal systems, most notably the role of the media and the inquisitorial nature of the judges.

But Indonesian legal experts say Indonesia's system is rigorous and independent and criticism about it is often ill-informed.

This report from Nick McKenzie.

(Sound of people yelling)

NICK MCKENZIE: When Schapelle Corby entered a Balinese court a week ago, she appeared to faint, apparently overcome by a ferocious media pack dangling recording equipment and cameras in her face.

The scene shocked many Australian observers. As her trial has progressed, supporters of Ms Corby have sometimes publicly questioned the veracity and integrity of the Indonesian legal system.

They're questions which are likely to be raised again, once the trials of the nine Australians arrested over an alleged plan to smuggle heroin begin.

Victorian man Christopher Parnell knows firsthand the confusion which surrounds the process of facing court in a foreign country. Mr Parnell spent 11 years in an Indonesian jail for a drug-related crime. He was released after a presidential pardon and maintains he was wrongly convicted.

Christopher Parnell says it can be very hard for foreigners awaiting trial to understand the process which might end up taking their life.

CHRISTOPHER PARNELL: When I was in prison there was 36 foreigners there at the time, and for each one - when they went up to court... there was a guy named Georgio Serantoni (phonetic) who got the death sentence, Antonio Videretta (phonetic), he got a death sentence, and with my sentence, we sat and talked about it, and we all agreed that it was like a sense of unreal, like a surreal feeling that this is... I'm watching this as a program, it's not really happening to me.

NICK MCKENZIE: Bond University criminologist Paul Wilson was recently called by Schapelle Corby's defence team to give evidence in her trial.

He says he was struck by the informality of the court system.

PAUL WILSON: Well, I think the informality of the Indonesian court was shown by one of the three judges asking me to stand up, and then asking Schapelle Corby to stand up, and then I was asked by the judge to look into the eyes of Schapelle Corby and to say whether she was lying when she said she wasn't involved in the drugs that were found in her surf body bag.

Well, I looked into her eyes and she looked into mine, and I said that I couldn't just rely on looking into her eyes, but based on my cynical assessment of her, my interview with her, my analysis of drug mules and my assessment of the actual crime itself, I was pretty certain that she didn't know that she was involved in a drug run of any sort.

NICK MCKENZIE: Simon Butt is an expert on Indonesian law. He says in contrast to Australia, the Indonesian legal system is based on civil law principles rather than common law principles.

SIMON BUTT: The judge is more active in civil law systems. The main role of the judge is to discover the truth about what happened.

Now, although prosecutors and defence lawyers will put their arguments to judges and try and put forward evidence in a similar way that they do in Australia, judges can freely ask questions of witnesses and can call their own witnesses if they desire, under the Indonesian system.

This has actually probably come as quite a shock for most Australian lawyers who generally like to carefully prepare their questions for maximum impact, and expect the judge to largely be restricted to enforcing the rules of evidence. So the Indonesian process is in some ways similar to a coronial inquest in our system.

NICK MCKENZIE: Indonesian courts also rely solely on judges, rather than juries, to make decisions.

Simon Butt again.

SIMON BUTT: Indonesia is accused of having a poor legal system, and its judges have problems with corruption and competence, but a lot of the elements of its system, such as a lack of jury, and I suppose you could put it, interfering judges, are actually elements of legal systems of a lot of countries in the world that follow the French tradition.

Although the French tradition... the French have actually moved away from that and they've actually started employing juries in some types of cases.

ELEANOR HALL: Simon Butt is an expert on the Indonesian legal system, and he was speaking to Nick McKenzie.

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