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Indonesia passes a new criminal code that prevents extramarital sex

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Sex outside of marriage and living together without being married are crimes punishable with jail time under Indonesia's revamped criminal code. Critics say the sweeping revisions threaten a raft of human rights and civil liberties in the world's largest Muslim country. NPR's Julie McCarthy has that story.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: After years of wrangling, Indonesia's parliament this week overhauled its colonial-era criminal code inherited from its former Dutch administrators. Most controversially, the crime of adultery is expanded to include both sex outside marriage and sex among unmarried couples who cohabitate. The changes, says Human Rights Watch Asia Director Elaine Pearson, collide with the image President Joko Widodo likes to project of Indonesia as a modern Muslim democracy.

ELAINE PEARSON: The criminal code that just passed is one that will actually violate the rights of women, religious minorities, LGBT people in Indonesia. And so, you know, it's actually a huge setback for human rights in Indonesia.

MCCARTHY: Under the new provisions, a married adulterer can be jailed for one year. Couples living together could face six months in jail. Sociologist and women's rights advocate Gadis Arivia says many Indonesians could be inadvertently liable because they cannot prove they're married.

GADIS ARIVIA: Millions of couples in Indonesia are already without marriage certificates, especially Indigenous peoples or Muslims in rural areas and because they practice cultural traditional marriage. So if you're implementing this kind of law, they will be affected.

MCCARTHY: The criminal code revisions come as religious fundamentalism deepens across Indonesia. Supporters of the law insist it will gradually be implemented over three years and aims to strengthen the institution of marriage. But critics say the new provisions, which also cover foreign tourists, open the door to selective enforcement. Gadis Arivia says the changes are meant to appease conservative forces.

ARIVIA: It is creating fear. It is creating fear in the public sphere. This is what it is about; that if you do this, this will happen to you.

MCCARTHY: LGBTQ rights defender Dede Oetomo says he's relieved that the code remains silent on the question of intercourse between same-sex couples. Historically, it's not been criminalized.

DEDE OETOMO: We didn't have that. And ironically, in the Dutch colonial criminal code, the state had no business in the citizens' bedroom.

MCCARTHY: But Oetomo says the provision that most threatens LGBTQ rights is the ban on spreading any ideology that seeks to replace the national principles of unity and tolerance. Ominously, Oetomo says his movement has been labeled an ideology.

OETOMO: That we actually borrowed from the West, and so we are dangerous to the nationalist state. The criminal code, I mean, I would call it, like, a big nail in the coffin of free expression, you know, freedom of privacy and democracy.

MCCARTHY: Local governments across the country have enacted laws regulating how women should behave - mandating headscarves, imposing curfews, forbidding straddling a motorcycle. They are now recognized in the overhauled criminal code as legitimate, a move human rights defenders say will ultimately drive away investors and damage Indonesia's international standing. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.