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International Concern As Indonesia Outlaws Premarital Sex Under Islamist Influence
Revisions to criminal code dismay business community, rights groups
There is spreading international concern over the Indonesian legislature’s hasty approval of sweeping changes to the country’s criminal code that outlaw premarital sex while also establishing criminal defamation for insults against a wide range of public officials including the president, vice president, the government and public authorities, and state institutions. The measure applies to foreigners as well as locals.
United States Ambassador Sung Lee, at an investment seminar of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia, warned that “attempting to regulate what occurs between consenting adults can have a negative effect on Indonesia’s investment climate. Criminalizing the personal decisions of individuals would loom large within the decisions matrix of many companies determining whether to invest in Indonesia. The outcome could well result in less foreign investment, tourism, and travel.”
Shinta Widjaja Kamdani, the deputy chairwoman of the Indonesian Employer’s Association agreed, telling Reuters that “For the business sector, the implementation of this customary law shall create legal uncertainty and make investors reconsider investing in Indonesia.”
Passage of the measure, which is to be implemented over three years, ironically comes just a few weeks after Indonesia pulled off a major coup by hosting the Group of 20 annual session, against expectations neatly threading the tensions between US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping and concerns over Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine.
“In practical terms, they have managed to make Indonesia look bad in the eyes of the world after a very well-done hosting job for the G20,” said a longtime local source. “In short, once again they find a way to shoot themselves in the foot.”
The measure, which was passed swiftly through the 575-member House of Representatives, has generated widespread protest. It was only made public at the beginning of July with the draft rushed to parliament, where the only remaining public forum was a question-and-answer session between lawmakers and the government, in which the public wasn’t allowed to participate.
Although the bill was sponsored by the government’s ministry of law and human rights, Islamic parties backed the morality clauses in the face of party jockeying for positions ahead of the 2024 elections. This deepens the Islamist trend, with Jokowi supporting it. He has yet to sign it. The code expands the current blasphemy law and mandates a five-year prison term for deviations from the central tenets of Pancasila, Indonesia's ruling religious philosophy. Citizens could face a 10-year sentence under the bill for associating with organizations that follow Marxist-Leninist ideology and a four-year sentence for spreading communism.
The claim is that it was watered down from the 2019 version, when tens of thousands took to the streets in protest, leading to its doom. Nonetheless, there are fears these rules could have a major impact on the LGBTQ community, where gay marriage is not allowed. Four days ago, the US was forced to cancel a trip to Indonesia by its special envoy on LGBTQ rights, Jessica Stern, after the country’s most influential Islamic group, the Indonesian Ulema Council, said the visit would harm the country’s religious and cultural values.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch raised concerns that passage would be a green light for the country’s notoriously corrupt police to extort bribes and would pave the way for officials to jail political foes.
Constitutional law expert Bivitri Susanti said the law would make the authorities comfortable because there are many articles with multiple interpretations that can be used to punish the people, including rules regarding criticizing the authorities and spreading ideologies that violate Pancasila, state's ideology. "The draft of the law will obviously make the president and all state institutions comfortable," said Bivitri.
The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) criticized the articles on genocide and crimes against humanity which could weaken the weight of these crimes, potentially causing difficulties in prosecuting or settling crimes. The Commission also regrets that the RKUHP still includes the death penalty as an alternative form of punishment as a last resort to prevent criminal acts.
Under its provisions, charges of extramarital sex, which must be brought by close family members, would earn up to a year in prison, while the president would be empowered to file complaints over insults that would send offending parties to jail for up to three years. Promotion of contraception is also outlawed. Although abortion continues to be a crime, it adds exceptions for women with life-threatening medical conditions and for rape, provided that the fetus is less than 12 weeks old.
Amnesty International told Reuters at least 88 provisions of the revised code violate human rights laws.
Attempts to introduce the revisions in September led to such protest that the attempt was delayed. It appears certain to generate widespread attempts to repeal or nullify it. Indonesia has long practiced a moderate form of Islam and premarital and extramarital sex are widely practiced.
However, fundamentalist Islam makes good politics. Clerics and politicians have been steadily tightening laws for well over a decade, although they don’t always practice what they preach. In 2013, for instance, a top aide to one of the country’s most prominent Islamist parties was caught by authorities in a hotel room with a bag of cash and a coed after agreeing to lend his party’s support to a special interest bill. In 2018, the leader of the radical Muslim Islamic Defenders Front fled the country rather than face charges involving a sex tape.
Although the government has been seeking since 1958 to revise the code, which dates back to the Dutch colonial era, the speed with which the revisions were pushed through has caught critics off guard. A similar attempt to ramrod the changes through in 2019 was stopped by widespread protest. Another protest to reject the new law was scheduled even as the parliament considered the bill.
“Indonesians deserve a reformed criminal code that protects fundamental rights to express their opinions, including criticizing and disagreeing with elected officials and the government,” said a statement by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an NGO defending digital civil liberties. “The new draft instead robs people of these rights.”
The Indonesian government, the EFT said, “now has a track record of failing to hold public consultations around amendments to the criminal code. In June, it announced a new draft, and again didn’t release it publicly. After pressure from civil society, the government made the draft of 632 articles public on July 6. It has not organized any inclusive public discussions, instead claiming to have met the requirement of public participation and awareness raising through so-called socialization sessions in only 12 locations in Indonesia.”
Albert Aries, a spokesperson from the law and human rights ministry, defended the amendments before the vote and said the law would protect marriage institutions, telling Reuters the scope of the amendment is limited by the fact that a spouse, parents, or children could only report acts of pre-marital and extramarital sex.
With help from Ainur Rohmah