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Politics

Indonesia set to outlaw unmarried and gay sex

Bills in legislature come from coalition of Muslim parties

A plainclothes policeman holds a rifle as he escorts suspects during a police investigation into a men's club after a weekend raid on what authorities described as a "gay spa" in Jakarta on Oct. 9, 2017.   © Reuters

JAKARTA Indonesia's legislature looks set to pass a new criminal code that will outlaw gay sex and sex outside marriage. The move comes as political parties -- Islamic and not -- scramble to play the morality card and appeal to increasingly conservative Muslim voters ahead of regional elections in June.

Lawmakers from all 10 political parties in the legislature have reportedly agreed that gay sex, as well as premarital and extramarital sex, should be included in the legal clause on adultery, under which perpetrators will be subject to punishment of up to five years in prison.

"It's almost final now, regarding the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issue. We're working on extending the definition of LGBT," Hanafi Rais, a lawmaker from the Islamic-leaning National Mandate Party, told local reporters on Feb. 1.

Lawmakers are also seeking imprisonment for those who "campaign for LGBT, justify LGBT and mobilize" support for them, he added.

Another clause in the draft revision of the criminal code seeks a one-year sentence for cohabiting couples. This will be the first revision of the criminal code issued in 1946.

The four Islamic-leaning parties in the House of Representatives control only a minority of seats, but some of their shariah-inspired campaigns seem to resonate with what observers see as an increasingly conservative population in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.

The influence of hard-line Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia is expanding. While their hard-line views are hardly shared by the majority of Indonesian Muslims, who adopt moderate Islamic teachings, the parties' ability to provoke mass demonstrations -- with clear support from parties opposed to President Joko Widodo -- has swayed some moderates. The two groups successfully organized two big Muslim rallies in late 2016 that led to the fall of Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, previously a popular incumbent despite his Chinese Christian background, and subsequently his imprisonment for blasphemy.

HUMANITARIAN OUTCRY The six secular parties, which control the majority in the legislature, do not seem willing to risk losing Muslim votes ahead of elections in June, in which 171 regions will vote for new governors, mayors and district heads. The parties, including Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, have sometimes complied with their Islamic counterparts' push.

"I'm sure the National Human Rights Commission shares our view to reject the existence of LGBT, and I'm sure it will even support expansion [of punishment for] LGBT perpetrators," House Speaker Bambang Soesatyo of the Golkar Party, the second-largest secular party in the House, said last week.

An official with the state-funded rights commission declined to comment and said it is still "studying" the matter, despite an outcry from rights groups.

"[The adultery clause] means that everyone can report others for adultery. That will surely increase persecution and vigilantism," activist Tunggal Pawestri said in a petition to reject the bill on the Change.org website, which was signed by nearly 45,000 people as of Feb. 5.

"People will race to become moral cops and intervene in others' privacy. There will be more raids of houses, boarding houses, apartments and other private areas if the clause is endorsed."

Widodo himself has been silent, just as he has been on increased police raids and vigilante activity against gay people over the past year. These include late January's police round-up of transgender people working in hair salons in Aceh, the only Indonesian province that has adopted shariah law.

With the House controlled by the pro-government coalition, the president in theory has the power to overturn aspects of the controversial bill. But with his standing already fragile among conservatives -- he almost lost the election in 2014 amid allegations he was anti-Islam -- Widodo is unlikely to risk any moves that could easily be portrayed by his opponents as being pro-LGBT and alienate Muslim voters.

Any such moves would run contrary to his recent efforts to cement his Muslim credentials with vocal support for Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority and Palestinians, and with his recent tour to predominantly Muslim nations in South Asia. Most recently, he visited Afghanistan on Jan. 29.

It is not clear when the new criminal code will be passed. Lawmakers originally aimed for January, but a number of contentious clauses have dragged out deliberations. These include an article on defamation that will make criticizing the president punishable by imprisonment.

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