Jakarta, Indonesia Eureka News Now —
Indonesian lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously passed a sweeping new penal code criminalizing sex outside of marriage, as part of a tranche of changes critics say threaten human rights and freedoms in the Southeast Asian country.
The new law, which also applies to foreign residents and tourists, bans cohabitation before marriage, apostasy, and provides penalties for insulting the president or expressing views contrary to national ideology.
“Everyone has agreed to ratify the (amendment) into law,” said lawmaker Bambang Wuryanto, who headed the parliamentary commission responsible for revising the colonial-era code. “The old code is part of the Dutch heritage … and is no longer relevant.”
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, has seen a surge in religious conservatism in recent years. Strict Islamic laws are already being enforced in parts of the country, including the semi-autonomous province of Aceh, which bans alcohol and gambling. Public floggings also take place in the region for a range of crimes, including homosexuality and adultery.
The Criminal Code changes have alarmed not only human rights activists, who have warned of their potential to suppress personal liberties, but also travel industry officials – who have worried about their potential impact on tourism.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said it was not easy for a multicultural and multi-ethnic country to enact a penal code that “takes all interests into account”.
He said he hoped Indonesians would understand that lawmakers had done everything to accommodate “public aspirations” and urged dissatisfied parties to submit a judicial review to the Constitutional Court.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, human rights groups and critics warned that the new code would “disproportionately affect women” and further curb human rights and freedoms in the country of more than 270 million people.
“What we are witnessing is a huge setback to Indonesia’s hard-won progress in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms after the 1998 revolution. This penal code should not have been passed in the first place,” said Usman Hamid, Executive Director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
The new penal code is 200 pages long and took years to draft.
An earlier draft was due to be passed in 2019, but the vote was postponed after thousands of protesters, mostly students, took to the streets urging the government to withdraw it.
In a televised address at the time, President Joko Widodo said he would postpone the vote after “seriously considering feedback from various parties objecting to some key elements of the penal code.”
Amnesty’s Hamid noted that “no significant changes” had come into effect since 2019.
According to the version passed on Tuesday, having sex outside of marriage carries a possible one-year prison sentence, although there are restrictions on who can file a formal complaint. For example, the parents of children who live together before marriage have the power to report them.
The Code not only introduces new crimes, but also expands existing laws and penalties. The blasphemy laws have been increased from “one to six provisions” and can now carry a maximum prison sentence of five years, according to a draft document.
Hamid said laws insulting the country’s leaders and unauthorized protests would have a “deterrent effect” on freedom of expression.
“Reintroducing provisions prohibiting insults to the President and Vice President, the incumbent government and state institutions would have another significant chilling effect on freedom of expression and criminalize legitimate criticism,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said the laws were “a setback to Indonesia’s already declining religious freedom,” and warned they could be used to target specific individuals.
“The danger of repressive laws is not that they are widely applied, but that they provide opportunities for selective enforcement,” he said.
Hadi Rahmat Purnama of the University of Indonesia Law School said the laws would be implemented after a three-year transition period.
The laws are expected to worry the business community, particularly those who regularly host and host foreigners and tourists.
The island of Bali, for example, relies heavily on tourist revenue and is still recovering from the pandemic slowdown that kept travelers away.
Putu Winastra, chairman of the Association of the Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies (ASITA) in Bali, told Eureka News Now the laws would “make foreigners think twice about visiting Indonesia.”
“From our perspective as tourism industry stakeholders, this law will be very problematic,” said Putu, who questioned how the laws would be monitored.
“Should we (unmarried couples abroad) ask if they are married or not? Do tourist couples have to prove they are married?” he asked.
Putu said the laws could be “counterproductive” to any effort to lure tourists back to the island.
“If these laws are actually implemented later, tourists could be (subject to) prison and this will hurt tourism,” he said.