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Indonesia's Criminal Code Bans a Lot More Than Premarital Sex

A newly passed criminal code in Indonesia will make it illegal to criticise the government and severely curtail civil liberties. Rights activists say the new set of laws is a step back towards authoritarian rule.

Indonesian lawmakers on Tuesday pushed through a revised criminal code despite widespread opposition from the public and civil society.

Along with punishing sex and co-habitation outside marriage with jail terms, the 200-page code outlaws “defamation” of the president and state institutions and expands the definition of blasphemy.

Indonesian civil rights activists say the new criminal code is a major setback for freedoms earned following the country’s emergence from the Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

Citra Referandum, a civil rights lawyer from the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta), said she expects “a lot of people will be going to jail,” especially those who criticise the government and its policies.

“Expressing your opinion will be seen as an insult to the president, vice president and state institutions,” she told DW.

According to the new code, “defaming” leaders and state institutions can be sentenced up to five years in prison, or a heavy fine.

Is Indonesia heading back towards authoritarianism?

Calls to reform Indonesia’s Dutch colonial-era criminal code have been ongoing for decades. The latest plan to pass a new criminal code was quashed in 2019 after widespread public opposition led to riots in cities across the country.

“What we are witnessing is a significant blow for Indonesia’s hard-won progress in protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms over more than two decades,” said Amnesty International Indonesia Executive Director Usman Hamid.

“The fact that the Indonesian government and the House of Representatives agreed to pass a penal code that effectively stamps out many human rights is appalling,” Hamid wrote in a press release.

“This contentious and overreaching new Criminal Code will only do more harm to an already shrinking civic space in Indonesia. The reinstatement of provisions banning insults to the president and vice president, the sitting government as well as state institutions will further entrench obstacles to freedom of speech while criminalising legitimate and peaceful dissent,” the statement added.

The newly ratified criminal code consists of 37 chapters and 624 articles. It will come into force at least three years from the date of passage in 2025. As the language of the law applies to “everyone,” there is also concern about it affecting foreign tourists.

The Indonesian minister of law and human rights, Yasonna Laoly, told reporters in Jakarta that the time will be used to acclimate stakeholders like law enforcement officials, communities and campuses to the new rules.

Laoly added that parties objecting the enactment of this new code are welcome to submit a judicial review to the Indonesian Constitutional Court.

Hamid from Amnesty International told DW he is discussing a plan to submit a judicial review together with other civil society actors and non-government organisations.

Outlawing political ideas

Taffi Hensan from the University of Indonesia’s Student Executive Board said he is very concerned about articles in the criminal code prohibiting dissemination of ideas opposed to Indonesia’s state ideology known as “Pancasila.”

Hensan said he is very worried about the law’s 10-year prison term for spreading ideologies not in accordance with Pancasila, such as Marxism and Communism.

He told DW this will affect his fellow students at the faculty of political and social science as they study many kinds of ideologies.

“Can fellow students who learn about Marxism be jailed? Because it’s against Pancasila?” he wondered.

The new rules are also set to heavily regulate demonstrations, stipulating that anyone holding a demonstration without prior notification to authorities on public roads resulting in “disruption of public interests or chaos” can be subject to a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a hefty fine.

“As students, we often hold demonstrations… In the previous law, the punishment was only 2 weeks in prison, now the sentence has been increased,” Hensan said.

A setback for women?

Meanwhile, women rights activists have said they are worried that the new criminal code will hamper access to reproductive healthcare and be used to criminalise victims of sexual harassment.

“When the victim speaks up, then reports [harassment], there is a possibility that the perpetrator will report her back using the cohabitation article to criminalize the victim, as it can be considered that she had sex before marriage,” said lawyer Referandum from Jakarta Legal Aid Institute.

Naila Rizqi, a women’s rights activist based in Jakarta, said the new code will put women under pressure to uphold public morality.

“When we talk about public morality, what will actually be discussed is women’s morality, what will be regulated is women and women’s bodies,” she said.

Sharon Margriet Sumolang in Jakarta contributed to this report.

This article was originally published in DW.