Indonesian President Joko Widodo has come under fire for sanctioning the forced chemical castration of convicted child sex offenders, which critics say is an attempt to shore up populist support and is neither effective nor ethical.
A spate of disturbing sexual attacks on children in the country – most recently the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in April – prompted calls in Indonesia for the introduction of harsher punishments for sex offenders.
In response, the House of Representatives passed a perppu, or regulation in lieu of law, that allows judges to impose chemical castration on convicted child sex offenders and rapists.
In addition to sanctioning the use of non-voluntary chemical castration, the regulation increased the maximum prison sentence for sex offenders from 14 to 20 years and stipulated that those convicted must be fitted with an electronic microchip on release from prison.
Tom Power, an Indonesian political researcher at the Australian National University, believes Widodo’s endorsement of chemical castration reflects a wish to appear tough, an attribute that his rival, Prabowo Subianto, demonstrated more decisively during the 2014 election.
“As he has become a more confident leader, and as his presidency has been consolidated through the expansion of political alliances and an effective accommodation of powerful interests, Widodo has adopted rhetoric and policies which aim to exhibit that he is equally capable of tough, no-nonsense, but often socially conservative, decisions,” explained Power.
Such reductive policy measures were indicative of the president’s “personal belief in the capacity for punitive measures to solve complex social ills,” he added.
The process of chemical castration involves the injection or oral administration of anti-androgenic drugs to reduce offenders’ sexual desires.
Don Grubin, an emeritus professor at Newcastle University’s institute of neuroscience, told Southeast Asia Globe in February that no medical study had yet produced conclusive evidence of the benefits of the treatment, which carries with it a number of side effects ranging from breast growth to bone thinning.
The Indonesian Doctors Association has publicly stated that their doctors would not carry out chemical castration on ethical grounds, warning that the measure would not serve as an effective deterrent on the basis that sex crimes were not caused by hormonal impulses, but by behavioural disorders.
In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, Widodo said that the doctors’ refusal to carry out the procedure was “fine”, but ultimately irrelevant. “If the court hands out that punishment, we will carry it out – military doctors or government doctors can do it,” he said.
The president also claimed the measure would “wipe out” sex crimes in Indonesia.
Widodo’s continued endorsement of the policy, despite criticisms from medical professionals and human rights activists, reflects badly on the president’s judgement, according to Ricky Gunawan, director of Jakarta’s Community Legal Aid Institute.
“The doctors’ association already objected to the proposal on valid, evidence-based arguments. This means that if he is a leader that believes in reasoned policymaking, he should not give his endorsement to the law,” said Gunawan.
Women’s rights groups, lawyers and doctors have argued that Indonesia’s new legislation focuses too heavily on the persecution of offenders and fails to provide compensation, restitution and rehabilitation for victims and their families.
Indonesia is not alone in sanctioning judges to authorise non-voluntary chemical castration as part of an offender’s punishment. South Korea, Poland, Estonia, and the states of California and Florida having already use the practice for certain convicted sex offenders.
Widodo’s endorsement of chemical castration is consistent with his stance on the execution of convicted drug smugglers, which has led to considerable backlash from international civil society.
Indonesia reinstated the death penalty in 2013 and Widodo has consistently defended the use of capital punishment as a means of combating a drug crisis in the country.
Gunawan said that chemical castration was a violation of the right to be free from torture, which Indonesia is legally obliged to promote and protect.
“Next year Indonesia will be reviewed through the UN’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism,” he said. “And I strongly believe that this issue, in addition to the death penalty, will be on the table. Indonesia will need to provide a reasonable explanation to justify their decision, which is something they don’t have.”