Indonesia bill barring extramarital sex gets renewed debate

Indonesia bill barring extramarital sex gets renewed debate

An activist shouts slogans during a protest, as Indonesia is set to pass a new criminal code that will ban sex outside marriage, cohabitation between unmarried couples, insulting the president, and expressing views counter to the national ideology, outside the Indonesian Parliament buildings in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday. (Reuters photo)
An activist shouts slogans during a protest, as Indonesia is set to pass a new criminal code that will ban sex outside marriage, cohabitation between unmarried couples, insulting the president, and expressing views counter to the national ideology, outside the Indonesian Parliament buildings in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Monday. (Reuters photo)

Indonesian lawmakers are forging ahead with plans to change the nation’s criminal code to effectively outlaw extramarital sex and increase penalties on women who have abortions as part of legislation that sparked violent protests when introduced in 2019.

Parliament may begin debate on the measure as soon as Tuesday. Debate on the proposal could take days or several weeks, depending on whether amendments are offered. 

In addition to the provisions on abortion and extramarital sex, the proposed revision of the penal code would also add limits on speech criticising the president and vice president and further restrict the rights of LGBTQ citizens. 

Days of demonstrations erupted after the bill was introduced in 2019, prompting President Joko Widodo -- known as Jokowi -- to delay the legislation in order to get more feedback from the public. In the end, little was changed, signalling the strength of Indonesia’s conservative religious parties, despite Jokowi’s urging to avoid identity politics heading into the 2024 elections. 

The last presidential election in 2019 saw candidates actively courting conservative Muslim voters, with Jokowi selecting cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his vice presidential running mate. Two years earlier, Jakarta’s ex-governor and Jokowi ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was convicted and jailed for blasphemy after being accused of insulting the Koran. Ahok’s backers said his comments were manipulated by conservative opponents.

Lawmakers did have a watered-down version of the legislation they could have taken up, but that was bypassed in favour of the current bill. 

While the move will win praise from Indonesia’s conservative Muslims, it may further undercut popular support for Jokowi among those backing a more secular public policy. Indonesians are already unhappy in the face of the fastest inflation in seven years and higher petrol prices following the removal of government subsidies. A recent survey showed trust in Jokowi’s government has declined to its lowest since the start of his second term as president in 2019 

The law’s passage could also undermine Jokowi’s efforts to court investors and bolster economic growth, endangering his plans to develop a new capital city for Indonesia in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. 

Here’s why Indonesia’s new penal code is controversial:

Free speech

There are at least 14 articles in the original bill seen as threatening free speech and press freedom. Among them is a defamation law that calls for a maximum of three and a half years imprisonment for insulting the president and vice-president. Others include laws prosecuting slander against government agencies.

Peaceful protests without permits are also punishable with fines and up to six months in jail. Currently, Indonesia’s government typically turns a blind eye toward peaceful assemblies and protests done without permits. That could now change. 

In addition, the legislation says journalists can face up to two years imprisonment for publishing “incomplete stories,” though it’s not clear what that means or who will make that determination. 

Abortion, adultery

While abortion is already illegal in most cases in Indonesia, the new penal code would punish women who have abortions with as much as four years imprisonment. 

Another article in the criminal code penalises extramarital sex, punishing violators with up to two years imprisonment and expanding the definition to include both adultery and sex between people who live together. 

Opponents argued that criminalising adultery isn’t in line with international laws that include a right to privacy. They also say the law risks endorsing public vigilantism, such as a case in 2020 in West Java where a mob in a village accused an unmarried woman and man of engaging in pre-marital sex and forced them to parade around naked, according to the Jakarta Post.

Religious insults

The penal code calls for the prosecution of people who “expresses in public opinions or commit hostile acts or blasphemy against the religion professed in Indonesia” with a sentence of up to five years or a fine. 

Indonesia grants official recognition to just six religions and is the world’s most populous Muslim country. The new provision is widely seen as covering insults to Islam and would contravene Indonesia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

Death penalty

The new penal code would impose a 10-year “probationary period” on individuals who are sentenced to death. If, within that period, a convicted criminal is determined by a judge to have mended his or her ways, capital punishment would be changed to a 20-year jail sentence or life imprisonment. 


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