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University students protest outside the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia September 24, 2019. Photo by: Willy Kurniawan/Reuters

Thousands of Indonesian students rally against changes to corruption law

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Police fired tear gas and water cannons Tuesday to disperse thousands of rock-throwing students protesting a new law that they said has crippled Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency.

Several thousand university students are enraged that Indonesia’s parliament passed a law last week that reduces the authority of the Corruption Eradication Commission, a key body in fighting endemic graft in the country. They joined the demonstration in front of the parliament building in the capital, Jakarta.

Rallies were held under tight security in big cities all over the country. The demonstrators, who had been protesting for days, are demanding that President Joko Widodo issue a government regulation to replace the new law on the Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian abbreviation, KPK.

The bill was passed into law last week by the 560-member parliament. The protests grew in the past two days and turned violent in some cities.

The protesters also urged parliament to delay votes on several proposed new laws, including on the criminal code, mining, land and labor. Opponents say the criminal code bill threatens democracy and discriminates against minorities.

Widodo had met Tuesday with lawmakers, whose term will end at the end of this month, to urge them to delay votes on the bills after considering public concerns. Lawmakers then delayed their votes on the proposed laws in their last plenary session.

Critics say the criminal code bill contains articles that may violate the rights of women, religious minorities, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, as well as freedoms of speech and association.

“The bill was delayed,” House Speaker Bambang Soesatyo said in a news conference. “It will be redeliberated by the lawmakers in the next term.”

However, no government officials or lawmakers said how they would handle the students’ demand that the new law on the anti-graft commission be revoked.

Security was especially tight in Jakarta, where 20,000 soldiers and police were deployed to secure key locations, including the presidential palace.

“We reject the bill on KPK being forced into law,” a speaker told a cheering crowd gathered in front of the parliament building. “Corrupters tried to manipulate us by this way, it’s the poor that are going to suffer most.”

Demonstrations were largely peaceful in Jakarta, but in Makassar, the main city on Sulawesi island, thousands of protesters blocked streets, set fires and pelted police with rocks. Anti-riot police responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Clashes between protesters and police also occurred in other cities, including Bandung, Yogyakarta, Malang, Palembang and Medan.

The protests, which underline Indonesia’s challenge in changing its graft-ridden image, have threatened the credibility of Widodo, who recently won a second term after campaigning for clean governance.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, ranked 89th out of 175 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.

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