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Indonesia moves to ban sex outside marriage under revamped criminal code

Rights groups say Indonesia is taking authoritarian steps after lawmakers passed a new criminal code penalizing consensual sex between unmarried people and criticism of the president.

SURABAYA, Indonesia (CN) — Indonesian lawmakers passed a controversial revamp of the country's criminal code on Tuesday, banning sex between unmarried adults and penalizing insults of a sitting president or state institutions.

The old criminal code dates back to 1918, when the Southeast Asian nation was under Dutch colonial rule. Its replacement was discussed for many years, but rights groups are criticizing the new code for limiting freedom of speech and other civil rights.

The new criminal code makes it possible to penalize unmarried couples for having sex with up to a year in jail should parents, children or a spouse report it. Living together without a marriage certificate can trigger a sentence of six months behind bars, making life even more difficult for LGBTQ people who already cannot marry legally in Indonesia.

“Outlawing sex outside marriage is a violation to the right to privacy protected under international law,” Usman Hamid, Amnesty International’s Indonesia executive director, told The Guardian on Tuesday. “Consensual sexual relationships should not be treated as a criminal offense or a violation of ‘morality.'”

Under the new code, insulting a sitting president or government institution can be punished by up to three years in jail if the head of state decides to report it. Human Rights Watch called the ratification of the new code “a huge setback to Indonesian democracy” last week when officials first showed their intention to pass it.

According to the organization, penalizing citizens for criticizing public leaders is not coherent with international law.

“The danger of oppressive laws is not that they’ll be broadly applied, it’s that they provide avenue for selective enforcement,” Andreas Harsono, a senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press.

Similar laws were implemented in a draft criminal code with minor modifications back in 2019, which sparked a wave of student-led protests around Indonesia, some of which turned violent.

As a result, lawmakers delayed a vote on the code at the urging of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Protests on Tuesday in the capital city Jakarta were small compared to the thousands of people who rallied in 2019. That could change going forward, though, as the full version of the criminal code wasn't made publicly available before Tuesday's vote.

Civilians and foreigners alike can be targeted by the new laws, which could be a problem for Indonesia’s business and tourism sectors. Passing the new criminal code comes less than a month after Indonesia hosted the G20, hoping for foreign investment.

International business interests could drop because of the new law, warned Sung Kim, former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

“Criminalizing the personal decisions of individuals would loom large within the decision matrix of many companies determining whether to invest in Indonesia,” he told The Guardian.

Millions of foreign tourists visit Indonesia every year. Critics fear that the new law might lower that tally, especially in Bali, the most preferred travel destination for foreigners in Indonesia. Tourism, a sector the government wants to rebuild, accounted for 60% of the island’s gross regional product before Covid-19 lockdowns.

Taufik Basari, an Indonesian legislator with the center-left NasDem party, noted that a tourist having consensual sex with an Indonesian national on a visit to Bali risks arrest, should the Indonesian’s parent or child report that tourist to the police.

“I know it will impact tourism, which is why we should explain to the public that reports to police should be limited to what the family feels is really important,” he said Tuesday. "As a parliamentarian, I will try to find more limitations for the implementation of these articles.”

Indonesian academics have criticized the country’s politicians for voting in favor of the new code. Herdiansyah Hamzah, a law lecturer at Mulawarman University, said Indonesia’s legislative and executive branches are ignorant when it comes to public opinion.

"The regime will exercise total control over the freedom of its citizens. The criminal code...will be used as a tool to silence those who are critical of power," he told CNN Indonesia.

Indonesia is the third-largest democracy in the world. Since former dictator Suharto was forced out of office in 1998, the archipelago has been hailed internationally for its democratic process and moderate attitude towards Islam.

Officially a secular country, around 87% of the Indonesian population are registered Muslims. In recent years, observers and researchers have expressed worries about Indonesian politicians supporting Islamic conservatism. In some parts of the country, strict Islamic laws are already in place, such as bans on alcohol and gambling.

The new criminal code is waiting to be signed by President Widodo. It is estimated it will take three years to fully implement the new laws.

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