In a world where the majority of countries are trying to be liberal and more accommodating, Indonesia just passed some controversial laws, which many consider a threat to the freedom of the almost 300 million people in the country. The new Indonesian laws, approved by parliament on Tuesday, include the criminalisation of sex outside marriage, cohabitation between unmarried people, and stricter punishment for abortion.
“We have tried our best to accommodate the important issues and different opinions that were debated. 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,” Yasonna Laoly, minister of law and human rights, told parliament before Tuesday’s vote.
Although the amendment to the country’s laws was approved by parliament, the president of the country would need to sign it before it becomes effective. Secondly, the transition from the old code to the new one would not begin overnight. It would be a gradual transition for at least three years.
Content of the new penal code
Extramarital sex and adultery
Under the new Indonesian law, sex before marriage is illegal. Citizens can now report unmarried persons having sex to the police, while spouses could report their partners for prosecution. Many are now scared that the country is heading towards morality policing, like in Iran and other countries.
Adultery has always been a crime in Indonesia, but this is the first time casual sex is considered a crime in the country. Those found guilty of adultery will now face up to one year in prison or pay a fine under the new law. Homosexuals are also not left out in the punishment.
Apart from extramarital sex, the criminal code also introduced stricter punishment for adultery. Married people having extramarital sex could face up to two years in prison, and unmarried people living together could face a similar punishment.
Critics argue that a law criminalising adultery contradicts the international law of privacy and is an indirect endorsement of jungle justice. In 2020, a woman in West Java was beaten for having premarital sex and was paraded around naked. Many fear the new law could open the door for such primitive acts.
Sung Y. Kim, the US Ambassador to Indonesia, said the new law on sex outside marriage could hurt the country’s business environment. He argued that sex between adults should not be legislated and insisted that the United States is concerned about the recent development.
“Criminalizing the personal decisions of individuals would loom large within the decision matrix of many companies determining whether to invest in Indonesia,” Kim said on Tuesday. “The outcome could well result in less foreign investment, tourism, and travel.”
Since the law is also applicable to foreigners coming into the country, investors could find it difficult to cope if their personal lives are monitored and regulated.
“Hotels or any accommodation facilities are like second homes for tourists. With the ratification of this criminal code, hotels are now problematic places,” Maulana Yusran, the deputy head of the Indonesian tourism industry board, said.
Yusran argued that the new penal code would affect the economy and tourism of the country adversely, especially as it is just beginning its recovery after the pandemic.
One of the controversial inclusion in the new penal code is blasphemy. Under the new law, citizens are not allowed to criticise, commit hostile acts, or blaspheme against any of the official religions in Indonesia. Anyone committing any of the stated offences against religion could face up to five years in prison or pay a fine.
The Indonesian government grants official recognition to six religions in the country. The most popular of them is Islam. In fact, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. While the country’s law has not prioritised any religion, critics feel that the purpose of the new law is to prevent criticism of the country’s most popular religion.
Capital punishment has always been a part of Indonesian law. However, there is an interesting amendment in the new penal code that allows a probation period of 10 years for those sentenced to death. If an Indonesian bags a capital punishment, he will be examined for ten years, after which a judge would determine if there is a change of heart. If the judge determines that the criminal had changed his ways, the capital punishment would be overturned to a 20-year sentence.
Insulting the president
The new Indonesian law prohibits citizens from insulting a seating president. A citizen charged with the crime of insulting a sitting president carries a prison term of as long as three years. Although there is insufficient information on this part of the law at the moment, government officials insisted that criticism would be allowed, but not insults.
Usman Hamid, the director of Amnesty International Indonesia, described the new laws as repressive and a threat to democracy.
“We are going backwards… repressive laws should have been abolished but the bill shows that the arguments of scholars abroad are true, that our democracy is indisputably in decline,” Mr Hamid told AFP news.
Although the new laws appear to be repressive, citizens and rights groups would have to wait for the implementation before one can conclude how extreme they are.
Could the laws be changed?
Labour unions and other critics of the new laws have not given up, as they could still challenge the new penal code legitimately. Indonesian laws allow the challenging of new legislation if there is no transparent public participation in the process. If the constitutional court agrees with such an argument, the new penal code could become null and void.
In 2020, after the Job Creation Law was passed, labour unions in the country challenged the legitimacy of the law, and in 2021, the court pronounced it unconstitutional. With such options still available, there is still a final chance for those not satisfied with the new instructions governing the country. However, if there is no contradiction or if such legal processes fail, Indonesians will have to adjust their lifestyles gradually to accommodate the new penal code.