JAKARTA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people have protested across Indonesia this week over a proposed new criminal code that would outlaw sex outside marriage, among other things, and which has now been put on hold by President Joko Widodo in the face of public pressure.
It includes a maximum one-year prison term for a couple who has extra-marital sex and a maximum six-month prison term for unmarried couples who live together. A prosecution can only proceed if a village chief files a complaint, and parents or children of the accused do not object.
Although it does not explicitly outlaw homosexuality, some fear the criminalization of extra-marital sex and new obscenity laws could form a legal basis for persecuting gay people.
While the proposed ban on extra-marital sex has grabbed headlines abroad, the bill covers 628 articles in total and opposition in the country of 260 million people is based on a much wider set of concerns than sex.
The bill also penalises people who criticize the president’s honour; teachers of Marxist-Leninist ideology; and women who have abortions in the absence of a medical emergency or rape.
It gives local governments the right to introduce so-called “living laws” not covered in the penal code, including sharia-inspired regulations such as the mandatory wearing of the hijab, or Islamic scarf.
Indonesia currently uses a version of the criminal code drawn up by Dutch colonists. It took effect in 1918. There has been discussion on changing it since independence in the 1940s.
Widodo first brought it to parliament in 2015. Initial attempts to revise it collapsed, but it gained traction after this year’s general election with the terms of current MPs due to expire this month.
A parliamentary vote had been expected this week, but Widodo put it on hold for further discussion in the face of public pressure and after headlines abroad on the possible ban on extra-marital sex sent a scare through the tourist industry.
It is not entirely clear-cut, in that some people support some aspects of the bill but oppose others.
Rights groups say that it is an affront to basic human rights. Many opponents of the bill say that it deepens conservative Islamic influence in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, which nonetheless has substantial Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. Opponents also argue that it reverses liberal reforms enacted after democracy was restored in 1998, when strongman leader Suharto stepped down.
Critics say some articles were rushed and that implementation is unclear.
The bill has the support of some Islamic groups in a country where conservatism has been on the rise. One group, Nahdlatul Ulama, said the revisions reflect “the character and the personality of the Indonesian people and the nation”.
Several religious-based parties have endorsed the more conservative elements of the bill, seen as likely to appeal to their constituents.
Some conservative groups want to seize on the momentum to promote stricter interpretations of Islam in the legal system. One advocate last week said she wanted the bill strengthened to specifically outlaw all expressions of homosexuality.
The ban on extra-marital sex is a big concern for the tourist industry. Australia already warned visitors to Bali of the risk they could face from extra-marital or gay sex should the law be passed.
However, officials have pointed out that prosecutions of foreigners under the bill - even as it stands - are unlikely. There has to be not only proof that extra-marital sex happened, but also a complaint from a family member.
Parliament had been due to vote on the bill on Tuesday and a vote could still take place before the end of the month.
However, Widodo has said the bill should be delayed until the new parliament is in place and in order to get more input on “what the people want”. That means it could delayed for a long period or even indefinitely.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Alex Richardson