Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, passed a sweeping revision to its penal code on Tuesday, banning extramarital sex, defaming the president and sharply expanding blasphemy laws.
The new rules, which also apply to foreigners in the country, have drawn criticism from human rights activists, businessmen and students who warned of the risks to the LGBT community and religious minorities. Opponents also said the rules threatened the global reputation Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, has built as a tolerant, largely secular nation.
In 2019, the government attempted to pass a similar bill, but President Joko Widodo shelved it after tens of thousands of youth protested in the streets, arguing that the law threatened their civil liberties.
In recent months, lawmakers involved in drafting the new penal code have consulted several human rights organizations and added what they called “safeguards” to several controversial articles. Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, Indonesia’s Deputy Minister of Law and Human Rights, said the government was trying to accommodate as many parties as possible, but acknowledged that the overhaul “will not please everyone”.
“If there are citizens who feel that their constitutional rights have been violated, the door of the constitutional court is wide open,” Edward told reporters last month.
Several factors have contributed to the resurgence of the law, most notably a concerted effort by outspoken Islamist officials who have pushed for public policy changes ahead of the next presidential election in 2024. Mr Joko, who is seen as a secular leader , is not selectable. But the tension between religious and secular voters is a perpetual problem in Indonesian politics. Aspiring politicians are often careful not to criticize religious groups and harm their chances at the polls.
The bill was passed unanimously in parliament on Tuesday.
Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, an Islamic cleric and former chairman of Indonesia’s Ulema Council, the country’s highest body for Islamic scholars, was supported by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin. anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the details of private conversations. Mr Ma’ruf had previously called for “strict rules” on the sexual activities of homosexuals.
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Indonesian officials say upgrading the existing penal code, which dates back to 1918 when Indonesia was a Dutch colony, is long overdue. Of the slew of new laws, punishments around consensual sex outside of marriage have received the most criticism. Under the new law, unmarried couples who “cohabit as husband and wife” could be jailed for six months or fined up to 10 million rupiah ($710).
Speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce in Jakarta on Tuesday, Sung Kim, the US ambassador to Indonesia, warned that “morality clauses that attempt to regulate what happens in a household between consenting adults could negatively impact Indonesia’s investment climate.” Criminalizing individuals’ personal decisions can also influence a company’s decision to invest in Indonesia, said Mr. Kim.
The code states that authorities would recognize “every living law” in Indonesia, which could be interpreted as the hundreds of sharia or Islamic regulations enforced at the local level in mostly rural areas. It expands the blasphemy law from one to six provisions, and states for the first time that apostasy – anyone who “convinces someone to be an infidel” – can be charged as a criminal offense.
Andreas Harsono, the Indonesian researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the laws would give police more opportunities to extort bribes and give politicians more excuses to attack their political opponents. “The danger of oppressive laws is not that they will be widely applied – no, they will not be – it is that they provide an avenue for selective enforcement,” Mr Andreas said.
Willy Aditya, a lawmaker from the left-wing NasDem party, dismissed claims that Indonesia was “turning into an Islamic country” but said the new law was written based on emotion, not research. The law shows that officials have failed to distinguish between public and private affairs, he said, “which is the most basic thing in democracy.”
Muktita Suhartono reporting contributed.