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Indonesia passes tougher terror law after Surabaya attacks

Greater military role and longer detentions follow bombings that used children

A counter-terrorism police officer walks past burned motorcycles after a blast at a church in Surabaya on May 13.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Indonesia's House of Representatives on Friday passed a new anti-terrorism law that seeks harsher counterterrorism measures following a recent spate of attacks that have rocked the nation.

The new law allows police to detain terror suspects for longer periods for investigations -- from one week to three weeks -- and gives wider room for military involvement in counterterrorism measures.

The role of the military had been limited under the previous law, with the National Police and its special anti-terror unit, Detachment 88, monopolizing counterterrorism activities. But riots by terrorist inmates at a police detention center outside Jakarta earlier this month that killed five police officers revived calls to cut the red tape to enlist military help.

President Joko Widodo said on Tuesday it was time to tackle terrorism with "extraordinary measures." He has approved a proposal to establish a special military unit that will include elite troops from the army, navy and air force. The president is expected to soon issue a decree to specify the military's role.

Deliberations on revising the 2003 antiterrorism law had dragged on for two years, but picked up after suicide bombings at three churches and a police headquarters in Indonesia's second largest city, Surabaya in May, and another attack on a police compound in Riau province on the island of Sumatra. More than two dozen people were killed in the attacks, including the attackers, some of whom were children as young as 9 years old.

The use of children as suicide bombers has revived calls for urgency in passing the bill. The president said the Surabaya attacks were "a wake-up call how families have become indoctrination targets for terrorism ideology."

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, has been intermittently hit by terrorism attacks since early 2000s. While past attacks had been linked to Al-Qaeda, in the past few years these have been attributed to local militants affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State in Syria. But this was the first time children were involved in attacks by radicalized parents.

Police have complained that the existing law did not allow detention of people returning from Syria, as it did not recognize crimes alleged to have been committed abroad. Hundreds of Indonesians are believed to have gone to Syria to join IS, a number of whom have returned.

Now included as crimes are participation in military and paramilitary training inside or outside the country with the intention of committing terrorism, Law Minister Yasonna Laoly said in a speech to the legislature on Friday. The new law also enables police to charge leaders of groups whose members carry out an attack.

Deliberations on the anti-terror bill have dragged on due to resistance from local Muslim groups over concerns it could target innocent activists. Rights groups have also been critical of the potential for human rights abuses in handling terror suspects.

One point of contention has been the definition of "terrorism" itself. Government officials and lawmakers have finally agreed there should be a "political, ideological or security disruption motive" that distinguishes terror attacks from ordinary crimes.

Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, however, criticized the increased military role, saying it might stir up the old rivalry between the police and the military.

"I think once you begin to change the system and allow the military to have an independent way of handling terrorism on its own without reference to the police, you are inviting duplication of effort, increased rivalry, actions that run across purposes to one another," Jones said shortly before the bill was passed.

However, another terrorism observer, Al Chaidar, a lecturer at Malikussaleh University, thinks there is a need for a greater military role in terrorism that involves the takeover of territory, such as the 2017 takeover of Marawi city in the southern Philippines by IS-linked militants. The Indonesian police are not well equipped for such combat, he said.

He criticizes the new law for promising the police more power and a larger budget, saying the police "can easily become a tool of power" that abuses the law by arresting many people for political purposes.

Nikkei staff writers Shotaro Tani and Bobby Nugroho contributed to this article.

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