Indonesia is set to expand its abusive blasphemy laws as part of an overhaul of the country’s Criminal Code.
In September President Joko Widodo ordered parliament to postpone voting on the draft Criminal Code to allow more time for review. While that raised hopes the six new blasphemy provisions would be revised, it’s clear the review won’t include them.
Indonesian officials argued that expanding the blasphemy law from one provision to six, articles 304 to 309, will clarify the elements of the crime. These elements include defaming a religion, persuading someone to be a non-believer, disturbing a religious ritual or making noise near a house of worship, and insulting a cleric while leading a ritual. These four articles violate the right to freedom of religion or expression and, like the current blasphemy law, will be used to discriminate against religious minorities.
Two other articles deal with stealing religious artifacts and damaging a house of worship, provisions that are unnecessary since stealing and damaging property are already criminal offenses.
The new provisions are also discriminatory in that they only cover the six officially recognized religions in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Hundreds of other local religions and beliefs are excluded.
Past misuse of the blasphemy law shows that expanding the law is not the answer. More than 150 people, mostly religious minorities, have been convicted under the blasphemy law since it was passed in 1965. It is most commonly used against people who are deemed to have criticized Islam, as opposed to other religions.
These include former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian, who was sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges in 2017 after a politically motivated smear campaign.
In 2016, a Buddhist woman, Meliana, complained about the volume of the call to prayer from a neighboring mosque in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra. Her private request prompted Muslim mobs to attack her house, and burn and ransack 14 Buddhist temples. Meliana was convicted and imprisoned for blasphemy against Islam. Ahok and Meliana would still be liable for prosecution under the revised offenses.
Indonesia’s new Criminal Code provides an important and long-awaited opportunity to modernize the country’s penal laws and ensure they meet international human rights standards. Many revisions are still needed, but it should be clear that revoking the much-abused blasphemy law is crucial to achieving that goal.