Public order police patrol a street in Banda Aceh. (Photo by Abby Seiff)
The recent arrest of two girls for allegedly being lesbians in Banda Aceh, capital of the predominantly Muslim province of Aceh, which has implemented Shariah law since 2001, violated human rights, church officials said.
On Sept. 28, the local Shariah police known as Wilayatul Hisbah arrested the girls identified by age and initials as 18-year-old "AS" and 19-year-old "N" after police saw the girls embracing in a public place. This arrest was in accordance with bylaws on the implementation of Shariah law in the fields of faith, worship and Islamic dissemination.
The girls were detained at the local Shariah police office where photos on their cell phones reinforced the police's suspicion and they confessed to being a couple, according to Evendi A. Latief, who heads the town's regulation and Shariah law desk. After a few days, they were brought to the local social welfare office for rehabilitation.
"In terms of human rights, the arrest is a violation," Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, secretary of the Indonesian bishops' Commission for Justice, Peace and Pastoral for Migrant-Itinerant People, told ucanews.com.
"Everyone has the same dignity, whether they are gay or not. They are God's creation that must be protected," he said.
All religions, he added, "aim at protecting human dignity."
Father Siswantoko said that whether you accepted same-sex relations or not, attempts at intimidation violate the women's dignity.
"A right perspective on them being people with dignity and respect is needed. Never use intimidation in this kind of formation because it will disgrace human dignity," he said.
He acknowledged that the province has a special autonomy but questioned the goal of Shariah-based bylaws. "Do they make people feel comfortable or do they set a limit on them?" he asked.
Sister Maria Resa of the Indonesian bishops' Secretariat of Gender and Women Empowerment said local customs in a conservative, autonomous area like Aceh often become a barrier.
"This is the difficulty. Thus, the local government has the authority to say no to anything violating human rights," she added.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Indonesian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the women.
"The arrest of two women in Aceh for everyday behavior is an outrageous abuse of police power that should be considered a threat to all Indonesians," Graeme Reid, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights program director at the rights group, said in a statement issued shortly after the incident.
"The Indonesian government needs to press Aceh to repeal its discriminatory bylaws," he said.
Latief, the town's Shariah law desk official, said that the province has a new bylaw called Qanun Hukum Jinayat, or Islamic criminal code, prohibiting same-sex relations between men and women.
"If we let them free, this will violate other people's rights. There is a special regulation here. We will arrest those violating Shariah law. Other provinces may say such an arrest violates human rights, but here in Aceh it aims to protect human rights," he told ucanews.com.
Shariah is the religiously based law of Islam that codifies the religious, social, domestic and private lives of Muslims. It has been implemented in Aceh since 2001.