The principal of a religious school has been sentenced to death for raping 13 girls at a school like this one. Photo: WikiCommons / The Ministry of Religious Affairs Indonesia

JAKARTA – An Indonesian court has sentenced a married religious school principal to death for raping 13 schoolgirls in a landmark case that draws an emphatic line under the controversial Sexual Violence Eradication Bill now nearing a final vote in the House of Representatives (DPR).

Originally given a life term, Herry Wirawan was accused of sexually grooming and assaulting the teenagers, nine of whom were impregnated, between 2016 and 2021 at a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school, in Bandung, south of Jakarta.

Under normal circumstances, the 36-year-old father of three would have only been liable for a maximum prison term of 15 years on each charge, although his status as a teacher allowed the district court to extend that to 20 years.

But the Bandung High Court judges were acting on a 2016 amendment to the Child Protection Law which prescribes death for serial child rapists, taking into account that Wirawan assaulted girls aged between 12 and 16 who were under his care.

“What he has done has caused trauma and suffering to the victims and their parents,” said the ruling released on the court’s website. “The defendant has tarnished the reputation of Islamic boarding schools.”

The West Java Prosecutor’s Office appealed the sentence in February, while at the same time saying it would consider demands from the families of the victims that Wirawan be subjected to chemical castration.

The high court also reversed a lower court decision ordering the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection to pay US$23,000 in combined compensation to the victims, instead of seizing Wirawan’s assets and presumably destituting his family.

The Bandung case brought to light the growing problem in the Indonesian education system, with the Child Protection Commission (KPAI) reporting that a fifth of the 51 sexual abuse incidents between 2015 and 2020 happened in boarding schools.

Religious schools in Indonesia have earned a bad reputation for sexual violence. Photo: AFP / Eko Siswono Toyudho / Anadolu Agency

In a later report, KPAI commissioner Retno Listyarti said 14 of the 18 cases of sexual abuse reported in 2021 were in 12 religious schools and involved 126 girls and 71 boys induced into sexual acts with promises of good grades and video games.

“It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” says one activist, deploring the time it has taken to pass the sexual violence bill. “The saddest part is the way religion has been used as a cover. A lot of the children come from poor families who only want their children to get a better education and are afraid to complain.” 

Of the 236,000 schools across the country, 84% fall under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The remaining 16% are pesantren, madrasahs and sekolah Islam, all administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, where oversight has been lax.

Activists say one in three Indonesian women suffer from sexual violence, which has gone on unchecked for more than a decade as politicians argued over a myriad of issues in the draft bill, including the definition of what constitutes “consent.”

That lay at the heart of a dispute last year between youthful Education Minister Nadiem Makarim and conservative Muslim groups, who claimed a regulation he issued defining sexual violence as the absence of consent was, in fact, promoting sex among students.

The controversial legislation shifted to a fast track in January when President Joko Widodo made a public appeal to the DPR to get it done. Media reports say it is now expected to pass a plenary session before the House goes into recess on April 15.

The DPR working committee studying the bill has agreed to recognize nine forms of sexual violence: physical and non-physical sexual harassment, sexual torture, forced sterilization, forced contraception, sexual slavery and exploitation and cyber-sex trolling.

The bill guarantees restitution from a proposed government-run Victim Trust Fund, a significant departure from a previous proposal requiring perpetrators to compensate their victims. 

It also mandates the establishment of integrated government services, involving police, health workers and psychologists, to handle cases of sexual violence and help victims recover from any trauma they have suffered.

Teacher Herry Wirawan after being sentenced to death for raping 13 girls at an Islamic school. Photo: Facebook

The bill does not address rape and coerced abortions, but the government says they were excluded to avoid overlapping with proposed amendments to the country’s overarching Criminal Code, expected to be passed in July.

Wirawan can still appeal to the Supreme Court, which will have to decide whether his sentence is justified when the death penalty was imposed at a time of public outcry over the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Sumatra. 

The last known executions in Indonesia were in 2016 when four men, including three foreign nationals, were shot by firing squad for narcotics trafficking, a charge that doesn’t meet the international law threshold for “most serious crimes.”

The Death Penalty Project last year estimated there were 355 condemned prisoners on death row. More than 60% of death sentences and half of all executions in the past 20 years have been for drug-related crimes.

But there have been apparently none for rape, apart from those cases where the crime took place in the course of a murder and served as one of the extenuating reasons for judges deciding on capital punishment. 

The government has not officially declared a moratorium on the death penalty, which is still used by 55 countries. But as Andreas Harsono, Indonesia director for Human Rights Watch, put it: “I think Jokowi (Widodo) got sick of all the protests.”