Parliament also approved a law that criminalizes criticism of the government, delivering a blow to the country’s progressive reputation.
Indonesia has long been known as a widely tolerant nation at the forefront of establishing democratic reforms throughout Southeast Asia. That progressive reputation took a hit on Tuesday when Parliament cleared a sweeping overhaul of the country’s criminal code.
According to the new rules, sex outside of marriage is now illegal in Indonesia, as is defamation of the president. The overhaul also sharply expanded laws against blasphemy in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Opponents said the rules posed significant risks to religious minorities by outlawing extramarital sex and tacitly targeting critics of Islam. Extramarital sex criminalization also targets the L.G.B.T. community, as gay marriage is illegal in Indonesia. The new laws could also curtail freedom of expression and assembly.
The new laws are almost certain to revive a debate around democratic backsliding in the nation of 276 million. After the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998, the country had prided itself as a thriving democracy. Most Indonesians held fairly relaxed views about homosexuality, which was never officially banned.
But in recent years, conservative Islam has gained ground in the country, and now some fear its influence is growing, even as its ranks remain a minority in Parliament. In the lead-up to the next presidential election in 2024, few officials appear willing to upset the religious right, which helped paved the way for Tuesday’s overhaul of the criminal code.
“It is a very significant encroachment on rights and liberties in Indonesia,” said Tim Lindsey, director of the Center for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne. Critics warned that the new rules, which also apply to foreigners, will make Indonesia less appealing to investors, tourists and students.
Muhamad Isnur, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, said the laws run “contrary to international human rights norms. We are in a new paradigm,” he said.
The bill was approved unanimously in Parliament on Tuesday. The government has tried for decades to overhaul the law but has never succeeded. In 2019, it tried to pass a similar draft law, but President Joko Widodo shelved it after tens of thousands of young people protested in the streets, arguing that the law threatened their civil liberties. This time, activists said they were blindsided when lawmakers suddenly announced on Nov. 30 that they were handing a draft to Parliament to ratify, giving the activists very little time to organize demonstrations.
Indonesian officials said they had engaged in monthslong conversations with several human rights groups before submitting the new draft. The lawmakers said they added revisions based on feedback, such as stating that blasphemy does not only apply to religion but all belief systems. Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, Indonesia’s deputy minister of law and human rights, said that the government tried to accommodate as many parties as possible, but acknowledged that the overhaul “won’t satisfy everyone.”
“If there are citizens who feel that their constitutional rights have been violated, the door of the constitutional court is wide open for that,” Mr. Edward told reporters last month. The laws, which are set to take effect after three years, will likely be challenged in the country’s Constitutional Court. On Tuesday, there were calls for protests outside Parliament. (The new rules state that people who demonstrate without a permit can also be penalized.)
Officials say upgrading the existing criminal code, which dates back to 1918 when Indonesia was a Dutch colony, was long overdue. Among the raft of new laws, penalties around consensual sex outside marriage have drawn the most criticism. According to the revisions, unmarried couples who live together could be jailed for six months or face a maximum fine of 10 million rupiah ($710).
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Though the penalties apply to foreigners, the new law states that the police can only make an arrest after a report is filed by a close family member, such as a parent, spouse or child, making it extremely unlikely that foreigners would be prosecuted, Mr. Lindsey said. “But gay and lesbian Indonesians, who, of course, are couples and they can’t be married, they are completely exposed.”
Police have previously arrested dozens of gay men for violating an anti-pornography law, but now, all gay couples who live together are subject to possible arrest.
The push for the overhaul was backed by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, an Islamic cleric and the former chair of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top body for Islamic scholars, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the details of private conversations. Mr. Ma’ruf had previously called for “stern regulations” on the sexual activities of gay people.
In a reversal, lawmakers on Tuesday reinstated a provision making it illegal to attack “the honor or dignity” of both Indonesia’s president and vice president, a rule that was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2006. In recent years, however, tolerance for such criticism has waned. Last year, the authorities arrested an artist who created a mural criticizing Mr. Joko, and activists say they have been harassed and charged with defamation for speaking up on rights abuses.
Mr. Joko — known as a moderate, secular leader — has spoken out repeatedly against intolerant views in his country. In an interview with The New York Times last month, he said Indonesia has a vibrant democracy with frequent peaceful protests outside the presidential palace. “Even today, everyone can criticize the president and the government,” Mr. Joko said, speaking before the Group of 20 summit in Bali last month. “I believe that Indonesia’s democracy is moving on the right track.”
Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that the laws would give the police greater opportunities to extort bribes, and lead to more corruption. Politicians would also have more excuses to target political opponents, he added. “The danger of oppressive laws is not that they will be broadly applied — no, they won’t be — it is that they provide an avenue for selective enforcement,” Mr. Harsono said.
The new penal code expands the country’s blasphemy law from one to six provisions, stating for the first time that apostasy — anyone who “persuades someone to be a nonbeliever” — can be charged as a criminal offense.
Religious minorities are most at risk of running afoul of this law. Roughly 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, while the rest are Christian, Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist. According to Mr. Harsono, the use of the blasphemy law has been most commonly used against people who have criticized Islam.
In 2017, former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian and an ally of Mr. Joko, was sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges after he was accused of insulting Islam by jokingly referring to a verse in the Quran in a campaign speech.
Willy Aditya, a lawmaker from the left-leaning NasDem party, rejected claims that Indonesia was “turning into an Islamic country” but said that the new law was written based on emotion, not research. The law shows that officials have failed to distinguish the difference between public and private affairs, he said, “which is the most elementary thing in democracy.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.