Decriminalizing sex crime victims in Indonesia

New sexual violence bill not only aims to ensure justice for victims but also seeks to ensure their rights are respected

Ryan Dagur, Jakarta

Updated: January 20, 2022 07:36 AM GMT

Victims’ families and supporters pray the rosary while attending the trial of church worker Syahril Marbun at Depok District Court in West Java, Indonesia. Marbun was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Jan 6, 2012, for molesting altar boys. (Photo supplied by Azas Tigor Nainggolan)

Yohanes (not his real name), the father of a teenage victim of sexual abuse, said he was overjoyed to learn that Indonesia's parliament had finally paved the way for the passage of a sexual abuse bill.

I am very grateful because it means there is a guarantee that sexual abuse cases will be addressed properly, said the Catholic father whose son was abused by a church administrator in St. Herkulanus Parish in Depok, West Java province.

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He said the 15-year prison sentence handed down last year to the abuser, Syharil Marbun, was too light considering that more than 20 children had been abused by him, although only a few had lodged complaints with the police.

The law as it stands does not provide a deterrent effect, it does not really side with the victims, he said.

The new sexual abuse bill was approved by nearly all parties on Jan. 18 with only one against it — the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

That means it's just a matter of waiting for it to be enacted after passing the final stage of discussions with the government. It is almost certain this will happen considering that two weeks ago President Joko Widodo stated he was pushing for the passage of the bill.

The opening of the door for enactment follows several sexual abuse cases that made headlines over the past few months

The bill has been stuck in parliament since 2012 despite constant pressure from rights activists, including those from the Church, to pass it.

Opponents are legislators from Islam-based parties, such as the PKS, who argue the bill is too liberal and have urged parliament to criminalize homosexuality which they say is perverted.

The opening of the door for enactment follows several sexual abuse cases that made headlines over the past few months.

One was the case of a mother in South Sulawesi province who accused her ex-husband, a civil servant in East Luwu district government office, of sexually abusing their three children, all of whom were less than 10 years old. Police investigators, however, ignored the evidence submitted by her and instead accused her of having a mental disorder.

The case sparked outrage, especially after the police attempted to intimidate the woman.

Another case involved the suicide of a 23-year-old pregnant girl in East Java who was depressed after her boyfriend, a police officer, pressured her into having an abortion.

In December, a 51-year-old religious teacher was accused of molesting 15 elementary school students in Cilacap district, Central Java province.

That same month a 26-year-old teacher at an Islamic boarding school in Bandung, West Java, went on trial for raping 21 female students, 10 of whom fell pregnant.

Activists believe the new bill will impose tougher punishments, cover more offenses and be a more effective deterrent.

The bill covers various acts of sexual violence, including assaults, harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilization, sexual exploitation and torture.

It also protects the rights of victims, including making it easier to report crimes and prohibiting law enforcers from taking discriminatory action against them. It also calls for the providing of help compensation and restitution for them.

Police treat sexual abuse victims the same as victims of ordinary crimes. Sexual violence is a unique form of violence that should be treated specifically

Azas Tigor Nainggolan, a lawyer for the victims in the St. Harkulanus Parish case, said the bill is very important to correct law enforcement practices in cases which often encounter procedural obstacles.

Police treat sexual abuse victims the same as victims of ordinary crimes. Sexual violence is a unique form of violence that should be treated specifically. Having the courage to report it is a struggle for the victim. This burden should be removed. The perspective should be on the side of the victim, according to what is needed to protect them. This is what we see in the new bill, he added.

Nainggolan said this step forward by parliament and the government also needs to be followed by a commitment by institutions such as the Catholic Church to proactively make reforms.

The St. Herkulanus case is the only example were abuse has been exposed and brought to court. The Church should start thinking about addressing cases that might have been covered up in the past, he said.

Franciscan Father Vinsensius Darmin Mbula, chairman of the National Council of Catholic Education, said his organization is showing commitment and pointed to the December launch of guidelines for dealing with sexual violence in Catholic schools.

Our position is clear, that we will fight this problem by maximizing prevention as well as encouraging comprehensive handling of cases that includes prosecution and providing assistance to victims, he said.

Yohanes added that a fair law must at least fulfill two conditions: having a deterrent effect for perpetrators with stiff prison sentences and respecting the rights of victims.

With a sentence that is too light, the perpetrator can repeat his actions, while the victim cannot really fully recover from the trauma, he said.

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