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Shariah bylaws in Indonesia's Aceh come under fire

A year after they were first introduced punishments have been unjustly aimed at low-status people, locals say

Shariah bylaws in Indonesia's Aceh come under fire

A Muslim woman receives 23 strokes of the cane after being caught in close proximity to her boyfriend in Banda Aceh on Oct. 17.  Indonesia's Aceh province has gained international infamy for its strict Islamic laws. (Photo by AFP)

People in Aceh, Indonesia have complained that their Shariah-based bylaws have been unfairly targeting low-status people.

The Islamic criminal code took effect on Oct. 23, 2015 in the predominantly Muslim province. It stipulates punishments, such as caning, for a range of offences, including same-sex relations, drinking alcohol, gambling, adultery, sexual harassment and rape.

For Farida, a Muslim woman who didn't want to give her full name, the presence of the bylaw is fine. "The problem is that its implementation seems to be unjust," she told ucanews.com on Oct. 24.

"It tends to be very harsh on the weak. The bylaw is strictly applied to low-status people and, if they violate it, they’re punished publicly," she said.

"I barely hear about cases involving officials. If there are some then they’re gone with the wind," she added.

Shariah police have conducted street raids almost every day. "They look for girls and women not wearing headscarves and unmarried couples sitting in the street. We feel intimidated," she said.

According to Father Hermanus Sahar, who has served as parish priest at the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Banda, Aceh since 2012, the bylaw’s implementation hasn’t been effective. "Alcohol is still sold here and some unmarried couples still go around," he said.

The bylaw can be applied to non-Muslims if they are willing to be sentenced under it. But Father Sahar said that his parishioners have never violated it.

There was a case of a Christian being punished under Shariah. On April 12, Remita Sinaga, 60, a member of the Batak Protestant Church, was publicly whipped 28 times after being found guilty of selling alcohol.


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Equality for all

Roslina Rasyid, director of the Legal Aid Society for Women based in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh district, said that her group has not yet been asked to intervene in Shariah cases.

"Sometimes a violator needs a counselor. But what I see as a problem is that, if a case is made public, it means disgrace to the family," she said.

As a result, she added, violators might have to leave their villages. "The local government fails to see this fact."

Nia Sjarifudin, coordinator of the Jakarta-based National Alliance of Unity in Diversity, suggested that the local government should conduct a review of the bylaw’s implementation.

"Have the violators’ rights been met?" she said.

Her group and several other organizations issued a statement saying that the bylaw’s implementation over the last year was full of violations.

"There have been cases of wrongful arrest and violent acts by Shariah police. The bylaw’s implementation is discriminative because it’s not applied to people with authority," the statement said.

The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform recorded that the Aceh Shariah Council issued sentences for 221 violations from January to September. During this period at least 180 violators were caned.

On Oct. 17, a woman was caned after being accused of "standing too close to her boyfriend." The woman was among 13 men and women flogged at a mosque in Banda Aceh for allegedly breaking the bylaw, according to a report in Britain's The Independent newspaper. 

'No discrimination' 

Syahrizal Abbas, who heads Aceh’s provincial Shariah agency, admitted that the bylaw’s implementation needs to be reviewed.

"In general, however, the bylaw has run smoothly. Indeed, there are still weaknesses and limitations but we will make improvements," he said.

The local government, he added, will soon issue a gubernatorial regulation explaining the detailed technical implementation of the bylaw in terms of rehabilitation which is in accordance with human rights.

Referring to criticisms saying that the bylaw’s implementation has been harsh on low-status people and easy on the powerful, he said that "we don’t want Shariah law to be like that. There must be no discrimination in Shariah law."

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