Indonesian LGBT community wins respite from criminalisation

Indonesian LGBT community wins respite from criminalisation

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Indonesia is breathing a sigh of relief, at least temporarily, as legislators have put on hold the passage of revisions to the Criminal Code that would criminalise gay sex along with extramarital sex.

Teuku Taufiqulhadi, a member of the House of Representatives committee deliberating the bill, said the revisions were almost final but some articles required approval from different factions in Commission III, which oversees legal affairs, justice, human rights and security.

The bill was previously scheduled to be passed during the House session in February but was sidelined after a public outcry over several controversial articles. It is part of a wider series of revisions that have evolved over the past 12 years to amend the penal code originally written by the Dutch during the colonial era.

"We are giving more time in the next two or three months for the public to provide feedback on the bill to us," Taufiqulhadi, a legislator from the National Democratic Party, told Asia Focus.

The Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) has already made its position clear and it is taking a hard line. Its members told lawmakers earlier this month that the law should contain deterrents to LGBT activities. They also recommended that homosexuality should be categorised as a mental illness.

"Adulterers, lesbians, gay men and other deviant sexual activities should be severely punished, as well as those who advocate, facilitate, provide funding or groups that take economic and political advantage from deviant sexual behaviour," Sri Astuti Buchari, an ICMI deputy chairwoman, said during a discussion earlier this month.

She also called for greater cooperation to block pornography and LGBT channels on social media platforms and the internet.

Some of the most controversial articles in the bill, known by its acronym KUHP, are those regulating general morality. They include an expanded definition of adultery and gay sex between consenting adults, with heavier sentences for violations. The revisions -- including a five-year prison term for adultery and one year for couples accused of cohabitation -- were made following a request from the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) and a mounting push from conservative religious groups.

Under the current Criminal Code, consensual same-sex relations are not treated as crimes, except in Aceh where the province has a special autonomy to impose shariah law.

An article that previously criminalised only paedophiles has been expanded to also criminalise all gay sex between consenting adults.

"We continue to push for the removal of the specific mention of sexual orientation in the proposed article. As long as the sex is non-consensual or with a minor, it should be enough to constitute a crime," Anggara, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), told Asia Focus.

The morality articles have been criticised for meddling too much in citizens' private lives and creating new "crimes" at a time when law enforcement agencies are already overwhelmed and understaffed in the face of more pressing offences such as drugs, human trafficking or terrorism. Correctional facilities are also bursting at the seams.

Arsul Sani, a legislator from the Islamic-based United Development Party and member of the working committee vetting the bill, defended the expanded definition of adultery to include gay sex and extramarital sex, saying it reflected people's philosophical, social and cultural values.

Sani said in February that the proposed morality article would also prevent "street justice", or people taking matters into their own hands to harrass those engaged in sexual activity they disapproved of, even if it is between consenting adults.

"It is necessary to expand the fornication article to not just criminalise adultery between members of the opposite sex but also between those of the same sex," he said. "It was first proposed three years ago. Why make a fuss about it now when the bill is about to be passed into law?"

Dede Oetomo, a Surabaya-based gay rights activist, acknowledged growing anxiety in the community over the rising hostility encountered in recent years, in contrast to the tolerance seen in the past.

Oetomo, an adviser to the gay rights advocacy group GaYa Nusantara, told Asia Focus that the community had been optimistic that tolerance would prevail, especially after President Joko Widodo was elected in 2014, as they believed he would push for greater democratisation.

"We had big expectations because he is not from the old regime or a former military man but apparently we were wrong," Oetomo said.

"Even before this talk about the proposed LGBT clause in the revised draft of the penal code, we have continued to encounter growing verbal and physical hostility since mid-2015," he said, noting that the change coincided with the growing clout of religious conservatives in Indonesia.

Despite the unfavourable outlook, Oetomo said LGBT people continued to go about their regular daily lives and to hope they would not encounter harassment by police or intolerant groups.

In October, police officers raided a gay sauna in Central Jakarta and apprehended 51 men including seven foreigners, only to release most of them the following day, while five employees were prosecuted for providing prostitution and pornography. It followed a raid in May in North Jakarta on a shophouse where gay men were gathering at a sauna. Officers arrested 141 men but 126 were released the next day while 10 were prosecuted for violations of the 2008 anti-pornography law.

Surveys carried out by the Jakarta-based pollster Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting paint a mixed picture of public opinion in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, and one long seen as moderate and tolerant.

In a poll taken in May 2016, 47.5% of respondents who know or have heard about LGBT agreed that same-sex relations are forbidden by religion while 34% said they totally agreed with that view.

But in surveys taken in September and December last year, a large majority of the 1,220 respondents saw the LGBT community as a threat. In the December survey, 87.6% said they felt threatened by LGBT people, up from 85.4% in September. More than half of the respondents, or 53.3%, said they could not accept it if a member of their family was gay, and 79% objected to having LGBT people as neighbours.

However, 57.7% of respondents also acknowledged that LGBT people have the right to live in the country and 50% agreed the government should ensure that LGBT people's rights are protected.

"The majority of citizens also object if an LGBT person becomes a government official, such as a mayor, governor, or president," said Ade Armando, the director of the polling firm.

"Even though the public views LGBT people negatively and is being discriminatory by refusing to support them becoming public officials, the public does not discriminate when it comes to LGBT people living as regular citizens."

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