Jakarta. The order by authorities in Aceh to have a woman and her married lover caned for adultery, even after she had been gang-raped by vigilante enforcers of Shariah, has spurred a maelstrom of criticism and soul-searching about the place of Islamic jurisprudence in Muslim-majority but secular Indonesia.
The alleged mob of vigilantes, one of them just 13 years old, stormed into the woman's home in the town of Langsa and accused the 25-year-old of having an affair with her 40-year-old companion. The accusation carried extra weight in Aceh as a violation of the province's partial adoption of Shariah, which, among other prohibitions, forbids intimacy of any kind between unmarried couples.
The eight vigilantes have been accused of gang-raping the young woman and beating up her companion before marching them to a local police station.
Police arrested three of the eight men by May 4, including the 13-year-old, and are still hunting for the others.
But the city's Shariah police, or Wilayatul Hisbah, made an announcement of their own: the woman and her companion would be caned for the original charge of adultery.
“This judgement raises serious concerns,” says Imdadun, a member of the Jakarta-based National Commission for Human Rights, or Komnas HAM. “The local authorities comes across as though they have no sensitivity toward basic human rights, or even sensitivity toward the purpose of Shariah itself. The purpose of Shariah is the good of the public and the individual.”
“They are misusing religion,” says Arbi Sanit, a political analyst from the University of Indonesia, says of the vigilantes, who rationalized their actions on the grounds that the woman's alleged adultery had “tarnished their village's reputation.”
“These people acted worse than animals,” he said. “Religion is meant to humanize people.”
Imdadun agreed, saying the danger with basing regulations on a highly subjective scale of morality allows people to take the law into their own hands.
“Rape is a violation of human rights, and whatever the reasons were it is also a violation of Islamic Shariah law. The perpetrators must be severely punished,” he says.
“Where is their humanity?” says Ruhut Sitompul, an outspoken Democratic Party official and member of the House of Representatives' oversight commission on legal affairs. “I think this whole thing is immoral, it's inhumane.”
Komnas HAM notes that while aspects of Shariah are in keeping with contemporary values of human rights, “there are certain aspects that are not in line with human rights norms.” The commission warns that rising Islamic conservatism in Aceh could pave the way for a deeper implementation of Shariah, with even more draconian punishments for a wider range of perceived offenses.
Rape vs. adultery
Not everyone is critical of the decision to cane the rape victim.
Azis Syamsuddin, the deputy chairman of the House legal affairs commission from the Golkar Party, accuses human rights activists and critics of Shariah of overlooking what he believes is the salient fact in the whole saga: that the woman had already violated Shariah before she was gang-raped.
“We should not look at this [as a] one-sided [issue],” he says. “The reason why [the couple] will be punished is because they were being intimate. Under Shariah, unless you are married, you cannot be intimate. The first crime can't be excused just because of the second crime.”
Others more steeped in the workings of Islamic law disagree.
“They have to settle the rape case first,” says Solahuddin Wahid, a prominent Muslim scholar from Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's biggest Islamic organization, and the brother of the late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid.
“That is far more serious than just being intimate,” Solahuddin says. “The [adultery] is not as serious, the woman had not done anything [sexual] yet.”
He says local authorities need to concentrate on arresting those accused of the gang-rape, and not on punishing the victim.
Imdadun agrees that rape is more severe than adultery by several orders of magnitude, and says the planned caning for the lesser offense must be abandoned to reflect that.
“When a woman accused of adultery becomes a victim of a violent gang-rape — a crime that is far more serious — it is no longer appropriate for the woman to be publicly caned,” he says. “The law is unjust if it continues to punish her. That is unfair for the [rape] victim.”
Frans Winarta, a lawyer and chairman of the country's bar association, known as Peradi, argues that in light of the rape, the woman should be let go.
“She has become a victim now, a rape victim,” he says. “Personally, I feel that she has to be given an exemption [from caning] because she has become a victim.”
Government's deafening silence
Neither presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah nor Deputy Justice Minister Denny Indrayana would comment on the case when contacted by the Globe.
The government has repeatedly cited regional autonomy as the reason it refuses to intervene in regional policy matters, including when local governments flout rulings by the Supreme Court, as with the closure of churches in Bogor and Bekasi, or issue bylaws that contradict national ones, as in the adoption of a separatist flag as the provincial standard in Aceh.
While all provinces in Indonesia are guaranteed a degree of autonomy, Aceh is one of only five that enjoys special autonomy (the other four are Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Papua and West Papua).
That concession was granted by the central government as part of the 2005 peace accord that brought to an end three decades of armed separatist struggle in the province.
Under that special autonomy, authorities in Aceh moved to formalize the region's strong conservative bent by implementing a limited form of Shariah, which, among other things, bans close contact between men and women who are not related to each other; obliges women to wear a head scarf and men to wear long trousers; and prohibits the consumption of alcohol and the selling and public consumption of food during Ramadan.
The Wilayatul Hisbah were established to enforce the rules, and over the years the group has drawn ridicule for cracking down on things like punk concerts and skinny jeans.
However, Shariah enforcement is often spotty in cities like Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, where women dress in form-fitting jeans, and the head scarf, perhaps the most conspicuous symbol of Aceh's Islamic culture and laws, is loosely worn by some women and not at all by others.
It is a distinction often lost on critics who falsely assert that Aceh is a sort of 12th-century backwater ruled by Shariah officers.
The region's differing views on the importance of Islamic law has caused conflict in the past. Local authorities said they once uncovered an anti-Shariah movement on Facebook and efforts to curb mixed sex parties and loud music have ended in brawls between youths and Wilayatul Hisbah officers.
The historical lack of a clear call for the implementation of Shariah as well as a recent history of controversial decisions by Wilayatul Hisbah authorities have underscored uncertainty about Islamic law in Indonesia.
One set of laws
Azis says Aceh is free to enforce Shariah if it wants to, given its standing as a province with special autonomy.
“The kind of law that is upheld in Aceh is legally valid,” he says. “It can be justified because Aceh law is a case of lex specialis , it can only be adopted by a certain region. Whatever is going to be done, as long as it complies with Shariah, we have to respect it, because lex specialis applies there.”
But others are not so convinced Indonesia needs two sets of laws.
“Regional laws should not go against national laws,” says Frans, the bar association chief. “We still adhere to the concept of a united republic. We are not a federal nation. If we were a federal nation, then it would be different.”
Komnas HAM says the government and human rights groups need to hold talks with the Acehnese people and community leaders about the future of the province.
“As for Komnas HAM, we believe it will be better if the law does not leave any room for discrimination,” Imdadun says. “We hope the people of Aceh can reflect this and make a better choice. It is important to raise awareness, to hold dialogue with policy makers in Aceh. This is important so they won't drift further away from Indonesia.”
He warns that if the rising tide of support for the separatists, the now-defunct Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, is left unchecked, its influence as a conservative group will grow stronger.
“Today, Shariah in Aceh still doesn't cover crimes like theft. At presently it [mainly] covers [crimes of intimacy]. The next step might very well be the implementation of heavier punishments for crimes like theft,” Imdadun says. “If that is the case, then thieves will have their hands amputated and adulterers will be stoned [to death]. This has not been implemented yet, but worryingly I have heard that a number of [legal] drafts have been proposed for that. The voice of the international world is important in this.”