Indonesia’s parliament today passed a controversial new criminal code, completing a legal overhaul that civil liberties activists say will abridge fundamental freedoms. Among the most controversial changes are new provisions that will penalize cohabitation and sex before marriage and ban insults against the president and state institutions.
The new criminal code, which an official previously said would be passed on December 15, sailed through the lower house of parliament with the support of a majority of lawmakers. In comments to parliament, Yasonna Laoly, the minister of law and human rights, framed the long-awaited code as a way of Indonesia making a final break with its colonial heritage.
“We have tried our best to accommodate the important issues and different opinions which were debated,” he said. “However, it is time for us to make a historical decision on the penal code amendment and to leave the colonial criminal code we inherited behind.” The law will come into effect after a transitional period of three years.
The passage of the long-awaited law prompted thousands of people to protest across the breadth of the archipelago, as activists mobilized in a bid to stop the code being signed into law. BenarNews reported yesterday on a large protest that was held outside the parliament complex in South Jakarta, where activists unrolled black and yellow banners that read, “Reject the endorsement of RKUHP,” the Indonesian acronym for the code. Other protesters carried placards that said “Criminal code bill controls women’s bodies.” Protests, which continued into today, also reportedly took place as far afield as Papua in the east of the country and its westernmost province, Aceh.
Under the new code, sex outside marriage carries a maximum one-year prison sentence, while insulting the president carries a maximum of three years. The code also bans criticisms of Indonesia’s “unity in diversity” state ideology, Pancasila, and preserves the use of the death penalty, despite calls from the National Commission on Human Rights to do away with capital punishment.
It will prohibit people outside medical professionals from publicly demonstrating the use of contraceptive devices, and prohibits abortion, except in a narrow range of circumstances.
Citra Referandum, director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute, who joined the rally in Jakarta on Monday, told BenarNews that activists would “continue to voice our opposition” to the new code. The last attempt to pass the amended criminal code, in 2019, came unstuck after massive demonstrations erupted across Indonesia, some of which turned violent.
As I noted yesterday, the conservative slant of the code is President Joko Widodo’s attempt to triangulate between his relatively liberal support base and the country’s conservative Islamic forces, whose support he is seeking to win following his government’s recent crackdown on Islamist fringe groups.
But legal experts and civil society groups say that this political accommodation will likely lead to a “huge setback” for the world’s third-largest democracy. “The state cannot manage morality,” Bivitri Susanti, a law expert from the Indonesia Jentera School of Law, told Reuters. “The government’s duty is not as an umpire between conservative and liberal Indonesia.”
The code is just the latest sign of how Indonesia’s reputation as a democratic beacon in both the Islamic world and in Southeast Asia has been tarnished by the rising illiberalism of the current administration, and the growing salience of an exclusivist vision of Indonesian identity rooted in a narrow and austere version of Islam.
The passage of the law came shortly after the U.S. government canceled a trip to Indonesia by its envoy for LGBTQ rights, following a strong denunciation of the visit by the country’s top clerical body. Jessica Stern, Washington’s special envoy to advance the rights of LGBTQI+ persons, was scheduled to visit Indonesia on December 7, after stops in Vietnam and the Philippines. But the plans were called off after the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) issued a statement claiming Stern’s trip was intended “to undermine our nation’s cultural and religious rights.”
The MUI “cannot welcome a guest whose purpose in coming here is to damage and undermine the noble religious and cultural values of our nation,” the group’s Deputy Chairman Anwar Abbas said, according to BenarNews.