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It should have been his greatest hour. With his Billabong contract on the line, 18-year-old Indonesian surf star, Agus Frimanto had bested a field of Indonesian pros to win his first senior event, and in some of the best waves ever seen for a national contest. Moments later he was staring down the barrel of […]

news // Feb 22, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 12 minutes

It should have been his greatest hour. With his Billabong contract on the line, 18-year-old Indonesian surf star, Agus Frimanto had bested a field of Indonesian pros to win his first senior event, and in some of the best waves ever seen for a national contest. Moments later he was staring down the barrel of a year-and-a-half in one of the most crowded prisons in the world. Stab travelled to Padang Prison in Sumatra to find out what happened. 

Story by Jed Smith

With its unmanned guard tower, asymmetrical walls and a few flimsy strings of barbwire running along one edge, Padang Prison is definitely no Alcatraz. But, don’t be fooled, it’s the shoddiness that frightens people most. Behind these walls it’s 55 to a cell, no beds (unless you pay for one), a meal a day and two hours outside your sweat-cage per 24. It’s said to be three times over capacity and it’s in here that you will also find three to four hundred juveniles mixed in with the men, though they’re kept separate come bedtime. In a few minutes, I will meet two of its inmates.

Four months ago, Agus Frimanto was the toast of Indonesian surfing. In one of the most important events in his nation’s surfing history, the 18-year-old from tiny Nusa Lembongan bested a field of feted senior pro’s to claim his first-ever Indonesian Tour win. In some of the best waves ever seen for a domestic contest, Agus overcame his “Lembongan brother” and fellow top-rated junior, Putra Hermawan, in the final – the one-two finish confirming the arrival of Indo’s new generation. Better yet, with Agus’ Billabong contract set to expire in two months time, the win also gave him a big, shiny trophy to bring to the negotiating table. But, the euphoria wouldn’t last long.


I’m sitting in a warung (local food hut) opposite the prison with Agus’ father, Ronnie, and we’re stocking up on cakes to take in to Agus. The last he’d heard of his son before finding out he was in jail was a Facebook update saying he’d won the contest.

I’m so happy, very, very happy, but five days and I hear nothing on the phone, no contact. I have no good feeling,” he says. First, Ronnie tried calling his friends on the tour only to be told Agus was still surfing. “They lying. I know they already finished. What they do there? His friend already come home to Bali.” He was eventually told of his son’s fate by the head of the Indonesian tour, Tipi Jabrik, but by then it was too late. Agus and his roommate, tour judge Wayan Darmawan, were already in a Mentawai prison on charges of drug possession, and the greasy wheels of the Indonesian justice system had been set in motion. They are serving one-and-a-half years each.

Agus had a bad feeling about the contest before it even began.

“I tell my team manager I not want to go because of a tsunami,” he tells me later. It would prove an uncanny piece of intuition when a 5.2 earthquake struck the island during the contest but, with a win set to earn him a 100% increase in his Billabong salary and the contest the first-ever domestic event to be held in the Mentawais, he was always going. Like many of the competitors, the trip would also be Agus’ first to the Mentawais. With a boat trip to the region averaging around five grand, it’s way beyond the means of most Indonesians. On this occasion, however, the Mentawais government was footing the bill. “It was a dream for everybody, especially the Indo guys, because all you hear and see about Mentawais is in the magazines and none of us can go there because it’s too expensive,” says Tipi.

The idea as far as the government went was to boost publicity for the land-based surf camps in the region in the hope of stealing back some of the millions in revenue generated each year by foreign-owned surf charters. Surfers would be travelling overland to get there and be staying at the camp nearest to HT’s. Charter boats would be banned from the area for the six-day waiting period of the contest. And, just to make sure everything ran smoothly, a large police and military contingent would be present on the island.

All of Indo’s big names had signed on to compete, including man of the moment, Dede Suryana, as well as Lee Wilson, Marlon Gerber and Pepen Hendrick. But, if they thought they were travelling in style, they was trippin’.

“Aieee! It was a mission,” laughs Dede. Two flights to Padang, a bus to Padang harbour, an overnight ferry, a day layover, another ferry – this time packed with locals, chickens, surfboards, contest gear and spew (“Everyone got sick,” says Dede) – followed by a final small boat, which spent the day toing-and-froing competitors and gear to the island, rounded off 36 hours in transit. “It wasn’t luxury,” admits Tipi.

But, when surfers woke the following morning to the swell of the year at HT’s – six-to-eight feet with the odd 10-foot wash-through and not a soul on it – it was definitely worth it. “Oh my god! I see the contest at Teahupoo and it’s pumping and I’m thinking ‘How good are the waves!’ But HT’s, it’s the same as that contest, better maybe,” recalls Dede.

With some logistics still to be taken care of the contest is called off for the day, allowing a freesurf to take place. But, most surfers have only brought the boards they could carry – two – most of which are 5’10”s and 5’11”s, leaving just Dede, Lee and Pepen to split the cartoonish, sky-blue caves among them. The next morning with the swell dropping to a more manageable six feet the contest is called on, but not before one tour official has his life threatened.

The shouts of villagers behind him were the first Mark Clift, the tour’s Australian judge, knew he was in danger. Minutes earlier, he’d been finishing off his morning cup o Joe at a beachside warung when a disagreement broke out over the bill. He’d been asked to pay 70,000 rupiah or eight bucks for the coffee plus the two beers he’d drunk the night before. But, he’d already paid for the beers. In his patchy Indonesian, Clift tries to explain the situation but they’re not having it.

“They were yelling, ‘You’re lying, you’re lying, you’re trying to rip us off.’” When a villager spits at him and another tells him to “fuck off” he takes off toward the judging tower. Suddenly, he hears yelling over his shoulder. “I turn around and here comes old mate – this looper! – with a big machete running up the beach after me,” says Clift. Fortunately, there’s a group of villagers between Clift and the machete wielder (who is missing an eye, did I mention?) who get to him first. It takes five of ‘em to get the knife out of his hand. All the while he’s writhing and making noises Clift didn’t think were possible. All the result of the magic that inhabits these islands, according to Dede. “Here, if some people get attacked by machete nothing happens because of this magic. This guy, he get angry and he turn not himself, like an animal, and he don’t remember what he do. He’s like, Garrrrr! like a monster. I was, like fuck, you don’t mess around here, man.”

“In the darkness, Agus had been handed what he thought was a cigarette and had taken a puff before realising what he’d done. But it was too late. Just down from where the surfers were the cops were having their own little gathering and were onto him in a flash. Panic set in on the island.”

Clift paid the extra 70k plus another 30k to finish the problem there and the villagers agreed to ban the man from the beach until the contest was over. No charges were laid by police. But, the horror wasn’t over. “Later on when I got out to the (judging) hut, I said to the other (white) guy, ‘Hey, did you pay for your beers last night?’” recalls Clift. “He goes, ‘Nah, I didn’t.’ Mate, they thought I was you this morning and there was so much grief over it and he’s just gone, ‘sorry dude.’”

With the event underway, Agus makes light work of his early opponents. He beats fellow top-rated junior and recent World Junior Championship giant-killer, Darmaputra Tonjo in round four setting up a blockbuster quarter-final with Dede. With two minutes remaining, Agus needs an 8.83 and Dede’s got priority. A lull sets in appearing to snuff out any slim chance of a boil-over but Agus starts paddling up the reef. With a minute to go, he snags a little runner and, “Bang, bang and then a reverse! And bang, bang all the way. I watch it from behind and I’m like, ‘Shit, I’m done,’” recalls Dede. It’s a nine, the highest single-wave score of the event, giving Agus the win. “All the boys are cheering on the beach for him, which is not good for me, but I’m happy he got the wave. He knows how to use good waves and he surfs good,” says Dede.

When Agus beats Made Raditya in the semis he sets up an unthinkable finale. On the other side of the draw his best friend and longtime rival from Lembongan, Putra Hermawan, has been on a similar run. In a fading swell, Agus takes it. He is overcome on the beach. “This place and the people are so great and the wave is so perfect. It’s the first time I ever surfed in a wave so good like this!” he tells the reporter on the beach. That night it’s down to celebrating.


Once inside the prison, it’s not immediately clear who works here and who’s an inmate. Everyone is smoking and I take a seat next to a barefoot man sharing a joke with a prison guard. He turns out to be an inmate. While we wait, a new batch of prisoners arrive. They have their shirts removed, belongings folded and placed in a plastic bag and their mugshots taken with a Nokia camera phone before being led away. When Agus finally walks out I don’t recognise him. He’s paler than in the photos, his hair is longer and he’s lost some of his muscle tone. Wayan is with him too and tries to give me a smile but spends the next few minutes staring blankly at a wall. Agus collects his cakes and takes a seat next to me, offering me some. I decline but when he insists, I break off a piece. This isn’t the first time we’ve spoken. When I’d first heard his story I’d tried for two weeks to make contact with him in prison before someone suggested I just call him. He picked up his mobile on the third ring.

Agus doesn’t wanna talk about his time inside.

“It’s just a nightmare,” he says, though does tell me that nothing has been worse than the first time he walked through the gates. “Everyone was yelling at me, “Hey you! Come here, come here! It was so scary,” he says. How exactly he came to be here is still a bit murky. The night after the final, Agus and a crew of competitors had been lounging around outside their hut when he was seized by police. With the only light on the island provided by generators, and the supply of Bintangs run out, the celebrations had been subdued. In the darkness, Agus had been handed what he thought was a cigarette and taken a puff before realising what he’d done. With the cops having their own little gathering just a few huts down they were onto him in a flash. Lee Wilson was in his room when he heard the news.

“I just froze, man. You know I was, I just froze. It was the worst news ever,” he says, adding, “Agus ain’t no punk, man. He’s one of the best-mannered kids I’ve met anywhere. It was just bad luck.”

Tipi was packing boxes when the official from the Mentawai tourism board raced to tell him. “I said, it’s really up to police what they are going to do, I cannot be involved. I have to protect the tour, I have to protect, you know, make sure this thing keeps going.” Although officially Tipi had to protect the tour’s interests, behind the scenes he and the government official and a group of senior tour members had swung quickly into action, organising a meeting with police to see if anything could be done to spare Agus and Wayan a jail term.

By morning, it looked like they’d succeeded, and with the tour leaving the Mentawais that day, the surfer and the judge would be among them. On the way home the crew stopped at a nearby island for a ceremony and the presentation of the winners’ cheques. That night, Agus celebrated with the rest of the boys but his intuition was spiking. “I didn’t have a good feeling, I was still nervous,” he says. The next morning he and Wayan were called to the hotel’s reception where they were again taken into custody by police. It was three days after this that Ronnie found out the news. “Maybe I can help make it clear. Maybe my son not have to be in prison now. I am very angry ,but not with Agus, with the people who should have been responsible for him,” says Ronnie. Why it took so long for him to find out was not the fault of any of the tour’s crew. Agus didn’t want him alerted, he didn’t want to disappoint him.

When I meet Tipi to discuss the incident, it’s at the Oakley World Pro Junior in Bali – where Agus would likely have represented Indonesia – and he’s reluctant to go into it, citing concerns about harming relationships with the tour’s sponsors and the Mentawais government (who have agreed to hold the event next year). But, it’s obvious the saga has taken its toll on him too. With a tinge of red in his eyes he lets out some feeling. “For me, what I can see is that every single thing that happens in this part of the world is two things: black and white, bad and good, night and day. In his situation, the good thing is that it’s a lesson, the bad thing is that some people have to take the blame.” He pauses, looking out to sea. “The hardest thing is that he’s so young and here, the way things work, nothing is clear. He won’t know what’s going to happen, or when, and that must be really hard on him.”

For the Frimanto family, the emotional strain is only part of the struggle. So far the cost of legal bills, travel to and from Sumatra, buying Agus “friends” extra food and a bed in jail and various other fees have topped 300 million rupiah or $A35,000, according to Ronnie. For Ronnie, who earns a living as a masseur back on the small island, it’s not exactly chump change. While we’re in prison, the financial strain is revealed in a heartbreaking scene. In the four months since Agus and Wayan arrived here they’ve held out hope for one thing more than any other: a transfer to Bali to be closer to their families. But such a move would cost another 25 million rupiah or $A2,500 and neither of the families has it. As he delivers the news, Ronnie holds his son by the shoulder, speaking into his ear. Agus nods stoically at the ground, pinching the bridge of his nose and wiping away a tear. Wayan remains slumped in the chair next to me.

“For the first three months, Agus’ dad Ronnie gave up his job and moved to Padang. For the first week he stayed with his son in the jail until two am, cradling him as he wept. “He say, ‘Papa, papa, please don’t leave me. Can you stay here with me?’ I’m crying too, so I stay here all the time at the front of the jail with him,” he says.

While it’s been a nightmare for Agus, his dad hasn’t faired much better. He still can’t believe his son, the intelligent, family-minded kid with aspirations of studying English literacy and culture at university next year, could end up in jail. “I never see him drunk or drinking. He is a nice, very nice person. I was surprised, very, very surprised by this problem. Why it come to him?” he says. As soon as they were told the news, Ronnie and his wife had rushed to Padang to be by their son’s side, arriving in the harbour as Agus was ferried in from the Mentawais prison. “Me and my wife are crying in the harbour. Together we came here with him, my son is still handcuffed. It was fucking…” he stops and shakes his head,  “until a week I am crying.”

For the first three months, Ronnie gave up his job and moved to Padang. For the first week he stayed with his son in the jail until two am, cradling him as he wept. “He say, ‘Papa, papa, please don’t leave me. Can you stay here with me?’ I’m crying, too, so I stay here all the time at the front of the jail with him.” Despite it all, on the surface at least, Ronnie maintains a smile. During the journey to Sumatra he made me blush trying to pay for my food. When I lost my boarding pass in the airport he helped me dig through my belongings as if I were his own son. He even regards the prison guards with warmth when they stop for a chat on their way to lunch.

For Agus, who along with Wayan will be released in March 2012 should everything go to plan, he’s just counting the seconds until he get back in the water. “I’m just going to surf all day, every day, when I get out,” he tells me.

But, he will be doing so without a major sponsor. Billabong declined to re-sign him when his contract expired in August, though a spokesman told Stab: “We will continue to look at ways to help through these most difficult of times” and haven’t ruled out re-signing him when he gets out. It wasn’t the news Agus was after but he’s not giving up on the dream yet. Before I leave, he gives me a note. It reads:

What I feel: Everybody doesn’t like to be here, me included. But it’s my mistake, I want to be responsible for. It’s hard here away from my family and friends, limited to do anything, of course, surfing too.

What I worry about: I don’t worry about anything. Everybody is kind to me here. I believe my family and my friends will support me always. If you think it’s about sponsorship, with or without sponsorship, it can’t make me stop being a surfer.

What I plan: It is an important experience in my life. I wish it will be the first and the last here. I will learn how to be better and fix up my attitude. After I come out of here I will enjoy my surfing again. Honestly I miss comps, I miss surfing.


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