A “medieval punishment”: the third public caning of a gay couple in Aceh

Two gay men in Indonesia’s Aceh province were publicly caned 77 times each on the 28th January after allegedly being caught having sex by a vigilante mob who raided their apartment in November 2020.

A “medieval punishment”: the third public caning of a gay couple in Aceh

What’s just happened?

Two gay men in Indonesia’s Aceh province were publicly caned 77 times each on the 28th January after allegedly being caught having sex by a vigilante mob who raided their apartment in November 2020. [[1]] In Aceh, public flogging is part of a longstanding pattern of punishments for a range of offences, including homosexuality, gambling, drinking alcohol, and adultery. [[2]] Human rights advocates have condemned the punishment, naming it a “setback for human rights”. [[3]]

What does this mean?

The caning, recognized as torture under international law and article 3 of The Human Rights Act, is deemed “punishment under the province’s Sharia (Islamic law) regulations”, which forbid homosexuality and same-sex relationships. [[4]] [[5]] Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that can legally implement bylaws originating from Sharia law as part of a peace deal agreement made between Aceh and the Indonesian Government in 2006. [[6]] In addition, homosexuality is not illegal anywhere else in Indonesia.

Initially, political leaders in Aceh made assurances that employing Sharia laws would not affect “religious minorities and would respect international human rights”. [[7]] Nevertheless, the laws implemented have become steadily stricter over time with numerous instances of Sharia police being implicated in “human rights violations and abuse of power”. [[8]] [[9]] Indeed, Sharia laws in Aceh have even expanded since their introduction to include more offences. [[10]]

This most recent, and reprehensible incident is believed to be the third time gay men have been publicly caned in Aceh since Sharia laws outlawing homosexuality in particular were introduced into legislation in 2015. [[11]] [[12]] In March 2017, another gay couple in Aceh were publicly canned 83 times each after a vigilante group broke into the house they were staying in. [[13]] Phone footage of the raid showed the vigilante group “kicking, slapping and insulting the men”. [[14]]

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Right Watch’s Asia division, said authorities in Aceh are guilty of torture: “[The authorities] must be universally condemned for this brutal, absolutely medieval punishment for an act that should never have been criminalised in the first place”, he stated. In addition, human rights groups have repeatedly called upon Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo to ban such abuse: “the clock is ticking for Jokowi to demonstrate that his support of equal rights for all is not empty rhetoric”. [[15]] However, the president has so far failed to impede such abuse. [[16]]

According to Syahrizal Abbas, the Head of the Department of the Aceh Sharia Agency, the law[s] do not violate the human rights of LGBTQ+ individuals because they can “live together as long as there is no sexual relationship”. [[17]] Abbas continued, stating that “[sex] is forbidden because in the Sharia context, the act is vile … It brings [an] unhealthy psychological impact to human development, and it will affect the community”. [[18]]

The employment of Sharia law, in effect, has been the actual cause for a supposed unhealthy psychological impact on communities in Aceh. Two opposing subcultures have manifested in the province, one of ever-increasing homophobia and another of fear about speaking publicly against the laws. Bigotry and hate are concepts that are taught, and in continuing to publicly hurt and humiliate human beings, the use of Sharia law is only serving to promote and sustain the already “deeply entrenched homophobia” in Aceh. [[19]] This hate has been further cemented by the introduction of a “Sharia hotline”, which was initially created in 2018 for issues around communities but is now being used as a vigilante monitoring system that urges people to “monitor” and report others’ behaviour to authorities. [[20]]

With so much public hate, it becomes that much more difficult for those who oppose these laws to speak out without fear of being harmed themselves, thus, the cycle of hate continues to grow.

“People are scared of speaking out to say they don’t support public canings […] they take the attitude that they see them, but that they don’t know anything about the cases or the law” [[21]]

Unfortunately, it seems as though Sharia laws will have a permanent place in Aceh. As activist and researcher Aryos Nivada stated that “ten years in the future, Aceh will still have Sharia law, […] it’s part of the character of Aceh”. [[22]]

The Legists Content Team

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[1] Kyle Knight, ’77 lashes for a gay couple in Indonesia’ (Human Rights Watch, January 28th, 2021)

[2] Indonesian gay couple flogged 80 times each for Sharia-banned sex’ (Times now news, January 28th, 2021)

[3] ‘Malaysian Muslim lesbian couple caned in public punishment’ (Human Rights in Asean, September 4th, 2018)

[4] Article 3: Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Equality and Human Rights Commission) https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/human-rights-act/article-3-freedom-torture-and-inhuman-or-degrading-treatment

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] ‘LGBT rights: Indonesia’s Aceh flogs two men for having sex’ (BBC News, January 29th, 2021)

[9] Ibid

[10] Aisyah Llewellyn, ‘”Shame and humiliation”: Aceh’s Islamic law violates human rights’ (AlJazeera, June 28th, 2019)

[11] Ibid

[12] ‘Indonesia’s Aceh province introduces strict anti-gay law’ (BBC News, October 23rd, 2015)

[13] ‘Indonesian men caned for consensual gay sex in Aceh’ (The Guardian, May 23rd, 2017)

[14] Ibid

[15] ‘Calls for Indonesian president Joko Widodo to stop Aceh caning’ (Out in Perth, May 20th, 2017)

[16] Rebecca Ratcliffe, ‘Men caned 77 times in Indonesia after “being caught having sex”’ (The Guardian, January 29th, 2021)

[17] Constance Johnson, ‘Indonesia: Aceh province law expands caning punishment to adultery and homosexual acts’ (Library of Congress Law, October 28th, 2015)

[18] Ibid

[19] Kate Lamb, ‘“A vigilante state”: Aceh’s citizens take Sharia law into their own hands’ (The Guardian, April 23rd, 2018)

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

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