After years of parliamentary discussions and heated public debate, Indonesia has just passed a controversial new criminal code that critics say is a step backward for civil liberties in the world’s third largest democracy.
Under the new criminal code passed on Tuesday, Dec. 6, anyone found having sex outside of marriage will face up to a year in prison. Cohabitation before marriage will also be banned, though only close relatives can report those found cohabiting or having sex outside of marriage.
Aside from those articles, insulting the president and state institutions; abortion, except for rape victims; and practicing black magic, will also be illegal in the Muslim-majority nation. Laws against blasphemy were also expanded from one to six articles, and now include apostasy for the first time, or the renunciation of one’s religion.
Indonesia’s new criminal code will apply to both its citizens and foreigners. The legislative changes will not be applied immediately, as authorities work out the implementation of the new regulations. This transition could take up to three years to complete.
Reacting to the new criminal code, rights group Human Rights Watch said it doesn’t “meet international human rights standards” as it violates the rights of many Indonesians—including women, religious minorities and the LGBTQ community, as well as curtails freedom of speech. It also said that the blasphemy laws “is a setback for already declining religious freedom in Indonesia.”
“The danger of oppressive laws is not that they’ll be broadly applied. It’s that they provide avenue for selective enforcement,” said Andreas Harsono, the organization’s senior Indonesia researcher. "These laws let police extort bribes, let officials jail political foes, for instance, with the blasphemy articles.”
Vishnu Juwono, an assistant professor in public administration at the University of Indonesia, told VICE World News that the new criminal code has been a “long time in the making,” having taken more than 10 years of discussions across different administrations.
“It has been a back and forth, the process of drafting this criminal code,” Vishnu said. “There's a number of aspirations that [the government] has been trying to accommodate from all stakeholders in Indonesia.”
An earlier draft of the new criminal code had almost made it into law in 2019, but was stopped just days before its scheduled passage by Indonesian president Joko Widodo. He had cited public concern over the bill, which sparked nationwide protests involving tens of thousands of people when it was made public.
The newly passed criminal code contains limited changes from the 2019 version. One notable addition, however, is a provision that could allow prisoners on death row to have their sentence commuted to life imprisonment if they demonstrate 10 years of good behavior.
Deasy Simandjuntak, an associate fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VICE World News that some provisions in the new criminal code have been “watered down” compared to its initial draft.
“However, even as it is now, civil society is still concerned about how the Code could impact other laws going forward,” she said. “For example, those that regulate ‘morality’ could intensify Sharia-inspired and discriminatory by-laws in [Indonesia’s] regions."
This year, the government said that it has held public consultation sessions in different cities with civil society organizations to explain the articles in the draft criminal code. However, civil society and international rights groups had called on the government to go public with the specific contents of the latest proposed criminal code.
Vishnu thinks that while the new laws will see the Indonesian government suffering a blow to its international legitimacy, it’s unlikely that its domestic public popularity will be all that affected.
“The popularity of the president is really high. And to be honest, this criminal law is only an issue for the urban people,” he said, pointing to the urban residents who make up 57 percent of the total population.
While a proportion of these residents subscribe to more liberal political beliefs and are engaged in social justice causes, according to Vishnu the majority of Indonesia is still strongly influenced by conservative values and are Jokowi supporters.
“So this kind of momentum domestically is in the favor of President Jokowi, regardless of the content of this law.”