Indonesia passes legislation banning sex outside marriage

Indonesia’s parliament has approved legislation that would outlaw sex outside marriage, in a move critics said was a huge setback to rights in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

After all nine parties endorsed a sweeping overhaul of the legal code, the deputy house speaker, Sufmi Dasco Ahmad, banged the gavel to signal the text was approved and shouted “legal”.

A revision of Indonesia’s criminal code, which stretches back to the Dutch colonial era, has been debated for decades. Rights groups had protested against the amendments, denouncing a crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms as well as a shift towards fundamentalism in the country, where secularism is enshrined in the constitution.

The code will apply also to foreign visitors, which could have a major impact on tourism from Australia as the island of Bali is a popular destination for young people.

“We have tried our best to accommodate the important issues and different opinions which were debated,” Yasonna Laoly, the minister of law and human rights, told parliament. “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.”

A provision in the text, which still needs to be signed by the president, states the new criminal code will be applicable in three years’ time. Some of the most controversial articles in the code criminalise extramarital sex, as well as the cohabitation of unmarried couples.

Activists protesting against the new criminal code outside the parliament building in Jakarta. Photograph: Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images

According to the text seen by AFP, illegal cohabitation will carry a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, and sex outside marriage will be punishable with one year in prison.

There are also fears these rules could have a serious impact on the LGBTQ+ community in Indonesia, where same-sex marriage is illegal.

The spokesperson of the law and human rights ministry’s criminal code bill dissemination team, Albert Aries, defended the amendments before the vote and said the law would protect marriage institutions.

He said acts of extramarital sex could be reported only by a spouse, parents or children, limiting the scope of the amendment.

Yasonna Laoly, the Indonesian minister of law and human rights, receives the new criminal code report from Bambang Wuryanto, the head of the parliamentary commission overseeing the revision
Yasonna Laoly, the Indonesian minister of law and human rights, receives the new criminal code report from Bambang Wuryanto, the head of the parliamentary commission overseeing the revision. Photograph: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

The article on extramarital sex has been criticised by Indonesian business organisations as detrimental to tourism, though authorities said foreigners travelling to Bali would not be affected.

At a business conference before the vote on Tuesday, the US ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Yong Kim, said he was concerned about “morality clauses” in the criminal code that could have a “negative” impact on businesses.

Before the vote, a shouting match erupted between a lawmaker from the Prosperous Justice party (PKS) and the deputy house speaker.

“Don’t be a dictator,” shouted Iskan Qolba Lubis, the lawmaker from the Islamist party, after he was prevented from speaking.

Bambang Wuryanto, the head of the commission that oversaw deliberations on the text, acknowledged “this is a product by humans and hence it will never be perfect”, but he invited critics to “file a judicial review to the constitutional court” instead of demonstrating.

Rights groups criticised the legislation as morality policing.

“We are going backward … 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,” the Amnesty International Indonesia director, Usman Hamid, told AFP.

About 100 people protested against the bill on Monday and unfurled a yellow banner that read “reject the passing of the criminal code revision”, with some demonstrators dropping flower petals on the banner as is done for a funeral.

Another protest to reject the new law was scheduled to be held on Tuesday in front of the parliament building.

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