Thousands protest as Indonesia set to pass law punishing sex outside marriage

Dandy Koswaraputra and Pizaro Gozali Idrus
2022.12.05
Jakarta
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Thousands protest as Indonesia set to pass law punishing sex outside marriage Demonstrators protest outside the Indonesian Parliament building in Jakarta against a potential new criminal code they say curtails civic freedoms, Dec. 5, 2022.
Eko Siswono Toyudho/BenarNews

Thousands of people rallied across Indonesia on Monday against the impending passage of a new criminal code, saying its provisions violate civic freedoms such as by punishing sex outside marriage with a year in prison.

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the revised criminal code bill into law Tuesday, and the law is expected to come into effect in three years.

“We will continue to voice our opposition,” said Citra Referandum, director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute, who joined the rally outside the parliament complex in Jakarta.

“We will mobilize a bigger crowd at the House of Representatives tomorrow,” Citra said, as she stood near protesters who carried placards that said “Criminal code bill controls women’s bodies.”

Activists said protests were also held in other provinces across the country, including as far away as Papua and Aceh.

In addition to punishing sex outside marriage, the bill also penalizes couples who live together out of wedlock. They could face six months in prison.

However, police can investigate such acts only if there is a complaint from a family member. The qualification is seen as a compromise to appease both conservatives and liberals who have been at loggerheads on the issue.

Homosexuality and extramarital sex are currently not outlawed in Muslim-majority Indonesia, but conservatives frown upon the practices. In Aceh province, where Islamic sharia law is in force, those found guilty could receive up to 100 lashes of the cane.

The bill also stipulates that “attacking the honor or dignity” of the president or vice president is punishable by up to three years in prison, but only if the person who feels insulted makes a police complaint, either in person or in writing.

Another article states that anyone who “insults the government or state institutions” could face 18 months in prison, or three years if the act resulted in public unrest.

The bill proposes a two-year jail sentence for anyone who publicly incites people to leave any of Indonesia’s six recognized religions, and a four-year jail sentence if they do so using violence or threats.

Indonesia recognizes Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.

‘Arbiter of private morality’

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said this week that the new bill did not bode well for Indonesia.

“Indonesia proposes to move down path of rights abusing disaster by criminalizing sex outside of marriage,” he said on Twitter.

“This outrageous, rights abusing criminal code proposal violates international rights standards of privacy and will severely damage the country.”

The state was acting as an “arbiter of private morality” noted Ian Wilson, of Australia’s Murdoch University.

“Who needs the FPI, when you've got the RKUHP [revised criminal code],” he said on Twitter.

He was referring to the outlawed Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group, whose goal was to impose sharia in Indonesia, and which carried out religious vigilante operations against establishments such as bars.

Demonstrators, meanwhile, said that the bill’s articles on punishments for insulting the president and government “make those in power averse to criticism.”

However, Sufmi Dasco Ahmad, a deputy parliamentary speaker, said lawmakers had deliberated the bill at length and accommodated public inputs.

“Articles were reviewed again and again, and adjustments were made,” Dasco told reporters.

Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly recommended that those who were opposed to the bill should file a judicial review once it has been passed.

“Differences of opinion are fine. If it is passed, please lodge a challenge with the Constitutional Court. That will be more dignified,” Yasonna told reporters.

Critics, though, have pointed out that an in-law of the Indonesian president who leads the court could compromise its independence.

The government has been pushing for revisions to the criminal code, which has been in force since 1946, arguing that the original dates back to Dutch colonial rule in the Southeast Asian country.

Thousands took to the streets of several Indonesian cities in 2019 to oppose a version of the revised legislation. Two students were killed in Kendari, in Southeast Sulawesi province, after police fired shots at protesters.

Lighter punishment for rights violators

Activists have noted that the bill has made some punishments more lenient, which won’t serve as a disincentive against committing certain crimes. 

For instance, while the maximum punishment for genocide is still death, the new criminal code proposes a lower minimum jail term of five years for the crime, as opposed to 10 years under the law on rights tribunals.

Rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization or sterilization, or other forms of sexual violence and enforced disappearances are punishable by between 5 and 20 years.

Atnike Nova Sigiro, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights, said that the inclusion of genocide and crimes against humanity in the criminal code would make it difficult to conduct effective prosecution.

“Hopes that the law will create deterrence and prevent a recurrence are dim,” Atnike told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, journalists in the Papua region, which has been beset by a separatist conflict for decades, fear that the new criminal code would make it more difficult for them to do their work.

“Papuan journalists reject the passage of the bill on Tuesday. It will hinder press freedom,” Lucky Ireeuw, chairman of the local chapter of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, told BenarNews.

The bill threatens a six-year jail sentence for anyone found guilty of spreading fake news and causing public unrest, and two years for anyone who spreads “unverified, exaggerated or incomplete news” that could cause public unrest.

Dimyati Natakusumah, a legislator for the opposition Muslim-leaning Prosperous Justice Party, said his faction had some reservations about the bill, especially provisions on insulting the president and the government.

“This will be a problem in the future, and prone to misinterpretations. Criticism could be seen as an insult,” Dimyati told BenarNews.

Victor Mambor in Jayapura, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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