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Indonesia's constitutional court defends pornography law

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s Constitutional Court on Thursday threw out an appeal of a controversial anti-porn law, in a blow to some secular parties, minorities and artists who had said it threatened freedom of expression.

Balinese dancers perform during the opening of a carnival on Indonesia's resort island of Bali February 19, 2009. REUTERS/Murdani Usman/Files

Already the law, which some Indonesians said is ambiguous, has been used to jail dancers in a nightclub and is seen as a threat to the country’s reputation for tolerance.

The court said concerns about the law’s ambiguity, lack of regard for certain ethnic and religious minorities, and its potential to incite vigilantism, were exaggerated. There was one dissenting opinion from the panel of eight judges.

“Although the law has been passed, its effectiveness and implementation are still questionable,” said Maria Farida Indrati, the only female judge on the panel.

“This is because of the ambiguity in the articles and explanations of the law. Those who will be directly affected by this law are women and children. So where is the protection as stated” in the law, she added.

The anti-pornography bill was promoted by a small group of Islamic and Islamist parties, and passed by parliament in October 2008, just a few months before nationwide elections.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who won a second, five-year term, then formed a coalition with several religious parties who wield considerable influence in the cabinet.

Indonesia is officially secular, but has the world’s largest Muslim population. While most are moderate, an increasingly vocal minority has pushed for wider implementation of sharia law in the most populous Muslim country.

In the final legislation, pornography is described as “pictures, sketches, photos, writing, voice, sound, moving picture, animation, cartoons, conversation, gestures, or other communications shown in public with salacious content or sexual exploitation that violate the moral values of society.”

Offenders face up to 15 years imprisonment. The maximum penalty for lending or downloading pornographic material is four years in jail or a 2 billion rupiah ($219,200) fine.

Indonesian women’s rights groups and representatives of the minority religions, who requested a judicial review last year, asked the Constitutional Court to drop the law saying it was discriminatory.

The law was widely criticized. The governor of Bali, which is predominantly Hindu, refused to implement the law in the resort island because of concerns it would affect local artists and deter foreign visitors.

Earlier this year, four female dancers, their coordinator and a cafe manager in Bandung, West Java, were sentenced under the pornography law to 2- months in prison for “erotic dancing” at a New Year’s eve celebration.

In Aceh province, the provincial government introduced a form of sharia law allowing the stoning of adulterers, a further sign that hardline Islamists have been able to set the agenda at local government level.

Local Islamic councils have also issued several fatwas in recent years, including one which banned women from straightening their hair on the grounds this would invite immoral acts.

Editing by Sara Webb