Capital punishment, in various forms, is controversial for promoting violence instead of rehabilitation. On 13 July, 15 people, five of which are women, were caned outside of Baiturrahim Mosque in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s conservative Aceh province. The detainees were accused of crimes ranging from extra-marital affairs, same-sex relations, and being intoxicated, all of which violate Sharia law. Two gay men, a couple, each received 87 lashes, but this was not the first instance someone was caned for gay sex. In May 2017, two other men were lashed 83 times for the same accusations. Nine others received 26 lashes for adultery and four were caned for being drunk (one of them received 27 lashes).
Hundreds of spectators, including children and Malaysian tourists, attended the caning. People took pictures and heckled the detainees, urging the officials to cane them harder. In a video an attendee took, a hooded man is inflicting the punishment while another official instructs the whipper where to strike. The detainees were reportedly given health checks to determine if they were strong enough to endure the punishment.
Though Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, Aceh is the only province that has implemented Sharia Islamic laws. It has a distinct political, religious, and ethnic identity, and with 98% of its 5 million residents identifying as Muslim, the province has earned the nickname, “Veranda of Mecca.” Sharia law came into effect in 2001 after the region was granted special autonomy as part of the post-Suharto reforms that aimed to decentralize power in the country. The central government was also trying to quell a brewing separatist insurgence in doing so.
This particular incident becomes even more controversial due to a memorandum signed in April by Irwandi Yusuf (governor of Aceh) guaranteeing that caning is to be executed exclusively inside prisons. This came after the province was the target of international criticism following last year’s caning of two gay men. Yusuf stated that, “This [law] is…to muffle Islamophobia. We don’t want Islamophobia to interfere with [Indonesia’s] foreign affairs.” However, it seems that this law upset segments of Aceh’s population. Demonstrators at a protest against the new legislation claim that “If caning is done in prison…there will be more Sharia violations in Aceh.” Yusuf is also on record saying, “criticism of caning criminals is Islamophobic.” Regarding the recent caning incident, Tarmizi Yahya (a Banda Aceh official) proclaims, “hopefully the caning we’re witnessing today will serve as a lesson for people not to violate Sharia.” It seems that support for public caning persists among those who have the political influence and cultural capital to end it.
Head of Banda Aceh’s religious police, Muhammad Hidayat disputes that the law has not come into effect “because there was no technical guidance [from the prosecutor’s office]” about how to carry out canings in prisons. Erwin Desman, head of Banda Aceh prosecutor’s office, uses a similar explanation by claiming there is no guidance from the Law and Human Rights Ministry about preparing for the prisons to be a venue for canings.
Since the punishment was introduced in 2005, hundreds of people have been subject to the harsh penalty. The LGBT community has particularly been targeted due to imbedded prejudices against homosexuality, and although it is not illegal elsewhere in Indonesia, there has been a growing backlash against the community all around the deeply religious state. Other crimes such as drinking, selling alcohol, showing public affection, and gambling are grounds for caning. Officials claim that the police prosecute violations of Sharia, without regard for one’s social status. However, earlier this month, Yusuf was arrested for alleged corruption, but it is already clear that it is doubtful he will be subject to caning, whether public or private.
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