Amid cheering crowds, two men in Indonesia's Aceh province have been caned repeatedly as punishment for gay sex. While the incident has grabbed global headlines, it's not an isolated one in the Shariah-ruled province.
Two men in Indonesia's Aceh province were publicly caned dozens of times Tuesday as hundreds of onlookers hurled insults and cheered. The punishment was meted out to them for engaging in consensual gay sex, a crime in Indonesia's staunchly conservative Aceh province, the only region in the world's most populous Muslim country that implements the Islamic law Shariah.
A Shariah court in the provincial capital Banda Aceh last week found the men, aged 20 and 23, guilty of having gay sex and sentenced them to 85 strokes of the cane. Hooded men, known as algojos or executioners, took turns administering 83 lashes for each of the men. Two lashes were deducted from the time they spent in detention.
The couple was the first to be publicly caned for gay sex since a revised Islamic criminal code that criminalizes sex out of wedlock, including homosexual intercourse, came into force in Aceh two years ago. Four unmarried heterosexual couples, who received much more lenient sentences for physical intimacy, were also caned.
Under Aceh's Islamic criminal code, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by up to 100 strokes of the cane. Canings are usually done in public in the presence of hundreds of people.
Humiliate and deter
Officials say the punishment is aimed at humiliating the offenders rather than injuring them physically. It is also intended to act as a deterrent to others. The punishment is carried out with thin rattan canes, with people still clothed while the strokes are delivered.
Aceh is the only Indonesian province permitted to implement the Islamic Shariah as part of the central government's efforts to put an end to an insurgency and a drive for independence in the region.
Introducing Shariah was never a key demand for the independence movement in Aceh. It was the government in Jakarta that got the ball rolling, said Felix Heiduk, an Indonesia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). In 2001, the government refused independence, but conceded it would grant autonomy - "and then you can have Shariah law, too." Jakarta kept its word, the expert said.
But since its introduction, a starkly conservative regime has taken hold across Aceh.
Observers say the consequences have been harsh. "Public life in Aceh has changed completely over the past 10 years," said Alex Flor of the Berlin-based 'Watch Indonesia!' human rights organization. There is corporal punishment for activities such as gambling, alcohol consumption or being alone with someone of the opposite sex while unmarried.
"Women must always and in all places wear a headscarf, and are only allowed to ride on the back of a motorcycle or seated side-saddle," said Flor.
The Shariah police, which operates separately from the regular police forces, monitors whether rules are being followed. In fact, its only function is to punish people who disobey Shariah, Flor points out. "First offenders are told what is forbidden, in a friendly but firm manner. The second or third time, offenders can expect to be penalized."
Strong public support
It's not new that religion is interpreted more strictly in Aceh than in many other parts of the country. "Aceh has always been known as Mecca's front verandah," said Heiduk. "The region was Islam's gateway to Southeast Asia, and it's always been the most conservative area in Indonesia."
While rights groups have repeatedly expressed alarm over the strengthening of Shariah in Aceh, many of those living in the staunchly Islamic province support the rules.
Zubaidah, a 20-year-old female college student who watched the couple being punished, told AFP it was the first time she had witnessed a caning. "I wanted to watch it so it could serve as a lesson for me not to commit any act that violates Islamic teaching," said the student, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. "Homosexuality is a curable disease, it is forbidden in Islam."
Even the 2004 tsunami, which ruined Aceh, is regarded as "God's punishment for sinful behavior in Aceh," Heiduk explains.
"Political groups instrumentalized this discourse to introduce a strict implementation of Shariah." And people can hardly evade it without being regarded as "un-Islamic," the Indonesia expert added.