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January 26, 2013 / Man in the Mirror

The Wall Street Journal: In Indonesia, New Spotlight on Women’s Rights

By BEN OTTO And I MADE SENTANA

JAKARTA, Indonesia—A provincial judge who made controversial remarks suggesting women might enjoy rape lost his bid for a seat on Indonesia’s highest court—one of a series of incidents this week, including a riot, that have put a spotlight on women’s rights in this Southeast Asian country.

Daming Sunusi, a high court judge in South Sumatra province, was passed over Wednesday by a panel of lawmakers overseeing vetting for new Supreme Court justices. Gede Pasek Suardika, a lawmaker and chairman of the vetting panel, on Friday told The Wall Street Journal that the decision not to vote for Mr. Sunusi was influenced by the public outcry following the judge’s vetting earlier this month.

Mr. Suardika said the panel’s view was also that Mr. Sunusi “didn’t answer some other questions well during” the vetting. Mr. Sunusi was one of 24 candidates vying for one of eight seats opening on the Supreme Court due to retirements. The reaction of Mr. Sunusi—whose tearful apology over the comments has been widely publicized in Indonesia—to being passed over wasn’t immediately known.

In addition, the Judicial Commission, a watchdog set up by the government to monitor courts and judges, has demanded Mr. Sunusi go before an ethics tribunal to determine whether he can remain in his current post. The commission says the Supreme Court is bound by law to hold the tribunal; there has been no response from the Supreme Court yet on the request.

The controversy around Mr. Sunusi began earlier this month when he was asked during the vetting for the Supreme Court post whether he thought the death penalty should apply in rape cases. Rape in Indonesia carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, while several other crimes, including murder, drug trafficking and terrorism, can be punished by death.

Mr. Sunusi answered that “both the victims of rape and the rapist might have enjoyed their intercourse together, so we should think twice before handing down the death penalty.”

The remark sparked a public backlash, with several advocacy groups calling for the judge to be removed from his post. Mr. Sunusi later apologized for his answer, saying it was meant as a joke and icebreaker to lower tensions during the vetting process.

The flare-up around violence and attitudes toward women in Indonesia comes amid global outrage over the brutal gang rape and death of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus. In Indonesia, too, issues of women’s rights have been drawing national attention.

The National Commission on Violence Against Women, an independent organization also known as Komnas Perempuan, said more than 100,000 cases of violence against women are documented each year in Indonesia and more than 4,000 rapes were reported in 2011, though it said the actual number of rapes is likely eight to 10 times higher.

On Tuesday, riots broke out on Tuesday in a Muslim-majority region after the death of a woman there last weekend. Police say the woman, who was Muslim, died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. But rumors that she had instead been killed during a sexual assault by her boyfriend, a Balinese Hindu, sparked looting and vandalism in West Nusa Tenggara province, about 700 miles east of Jakarta, a region already tense with ethnic divisions. Local papers said as many as 3,000 people fled their homes out of fear of violence.

On Friday, National Police spokesman Boy Rafli said an autopsy of the woman had been completed. Mr. Rafli declined to say when the autopsy results will be released, but said the riot “was because the people believed in the rumor that the woman was tortured, raped. But it was purely a traffic accident.”

Meanwhile, also on Friday, a coalition of some of the nation’s biggest activist groups, including Komnas Perempuan, welcomed a Supreme Court ruling that a district head in West Java can be impeached after reports that he took a 17-year-old as a second wife last year and divorced her several days later in a text message. Second marriages are allowed in Indonesia as are divorces. The action against the man involved a variety of legal and ethical allegations, including that he rejected the girl after he found out, he says, that she wasn’t a virgin.

The man, who maintains the legality of his actions, has said he will sue the Supreme Court for its decision, which was made public on Wednesday.

Andy Yentriyani, a commissioner with Komnas Perempuan, said the case is another sign of shifting attitudes in Indonesia concerning women’s rights.

“For a long time, people mostly blamed the women in cases like these, but that’s not what we’re seeing right now,” she said. “It’s like people are fed up” with some officials’ attitudes. “It’s really been quite surprising to see.”

Sinta Nuriyah Wahid, the widow of former President Abdurrahman Wahid, said Friday that Mr. Sunusi, the rejected Supreme Court candidate, was representative of a culture in which law enforcement hasn’t caught up with the actual laws.

“We need better enforcement of the laws,” she said, adding she favors harsher sentencing for rapists. “It’s a matter of changing the mind-sets of law enforcers regarding women and children to make them more sensitive.”

—Joko Hariyanto contributed to this article.

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