Indonesia's Controversial Intelligence Bill

Civil libertarians in Jakarta have been alarmed by the passage Tuesday of a bill that gives sweeping new powers to the State Intelligence Agency that critics fear will take the country back to the bad old days of the 30-year Suharto dictatorship and its all-powerful secret police.

The intelligence agency, known by the Indonesian language initials BIN, has been trying push the legislation through the Indonesian House of Representatives for a considerable period but was stymied until last week when the bombing of a church in Solo caught intelligence officials by surprise.

The passage comes at a time when other governments in the region are starting to loosen up, however slightly. Malaysia, across the Strait of Malacca, has agreed to phase out its draconian Internal Security Act and to cut back on other civil restrictions. Even Burma, ruled by a military dictatorship for decades, has in recent weeks begun to loosen its restrictions on its citizens, although it is unsure how far that will go before the generals get queasy.

“The real problem is not the need for more laws -- but rather for the government to be serious about enforcing the ones they’ve got -- especially in terms of religious tolerance, which is what seems to behind the Solo bombing, the earlier bombing of a police mosque in East Java and other murmurs of unrest,” said a seasoned observer in Jakarta. "Indonesia has all the laws it needs. What it doesn't have is presidential leadership on issues like tolerance and sectarianism -- precisely the things that drive people toward violent acts,"

Perhaps Indonesia’s biggest concern is the rise of religious radicals who have conducted a spate of bombings across the country as well as exhorting their followers to commit other horrendous violent acts, such as the attack by a howling mob earlier this year on the followers of the Ahmadiyah sect, in which three men were beaten to death. The leaders of the mob were given a slap on the wrist and the leader of the sect was jailed for inciting the violence although it was clear that he and his friends were only trying to guard their compound from the mob.

"I am not as worried about the erosion of civil liberties as some people are -- but I am worried about the rise of religious radicals -- and this bill won't do anything to address that," said the observer.

While other observers say the bill is probably not a return to the Suharto period, which ended in May of 1998, it considerably enhances the power of the BIN. It is expected to be signed into law by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was said by Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar to be in favor of it despite its controversial provisions. However although it becomes law with Yudhoyono’s expected signature, it still requires the passage of enabling legislation to be put into effect.

“Even though a number of proposals from civil society organizations have been incorporated into the bill, in general it still fails to create an agency that is in line with the principles of human rights, the law and democracy,” Haris Azhar, a coordinator for the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, told local media. “The bill also lacks concise definitions of national security, threats to the nation, human rights and civil liberties,”

Among other things that concern civil libertarians are the imprecision of its language in regards to what constitutes a threat to the state, the leaking of intelligence secrets, the authority to tap telephones, the authority to track the flow of funds and the gathering of information on anyone suspected of threatening national security or engaging in terrorism, separatism, espionage or sabotage.

As a compromise, wiretapping, one of the more contentious issues, will only be allowed after intelligence agencies have sufficient initial evidence and have secured a court order. It also gives the BIN access to records from the Financial Transaction and Reports Analysis Center. Another section gives the intelligence agency a say on foreigners or foreign institutions planning to take Indonesian citizenship, or visit, work, study or open a representative office in the country.

Secrecy provisions expose to criminal charges anyone caught leaking classified information related to national defense, natural resources, economics or international politics and relations before the end of a 20-year period of confidentiality.

“Rather than forbidding people from leaking confidential information, the bill should regulate how the State Intelligence Agency stores its information instead,” Azhar said, adding that nothing in the bill specified that intelligence officers had to respect the law and human rights, be apolitical, refrain from engaging in side businesses or work impartially and indiscriminately.

It contains no provisions to address complaints filled by civil society organizations. And, prior to the measure’s final passage, a provision was removed that was designed to establish a monitoring body to investigate activities that could potentially violate human rights, critics say.