Religious Islamic law concept of a wooden court gavel lying beside a sign that reads Sharia law. Photo: iStock
With complex standards set out by a number of Islamic bodies, it's not easy for observant Muslims to decide whether or not an investment is halal (religiously permissible). Photo: iStock
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It has been almost a year since 20-year-old “Muhammad” and 23-year-old “Hanif” were marched in front of a jeering crowd in Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province, and flogged more than 80 times. Their alleged crime? Same-sex intimacy. Their neighbors had caught them together, naked in an apartment a few months earlier, and turned them in to Aceh’s notoriously abusive Sharia (Islamic law) police.

The public whipping – Indonesia’s first for same-sex conduct –generated international outrage. The United Nations, human-rights groups, and many private-sector leaders criticized the apparent nadir of a government-driven anti-LGBT campaign that had engulfed Indonesia since early 2016. In May 2017, news channels around the world broadcast the stomach-turning footage of the two men’s grotesque punishment. I’ve changed their names to protect them from further abuse.

More than 530 people have been publicly flogged in Aceh since the province’s Islamic criminal code was enacted in October 2015. The authorities have caned men and women for such “crimes” as gambling, non-marital kissing, and extramarital sex.

A few months after Muhammad and Hanif’s widely publicized 2017 whipping, Acehnese authorities were clearly feeling stung by the international outcry the gay men’s flogging generated. In a media interview, the Aceh governor, Irwandi Yusuf, suggested that he was worried that videos of the flogging, which were widely circulated online, were making the province unappealing for investors. His suggested solution was to put an end to floggings held in public. Instead, authorities would flog people indoors, away from the cameras. Earlier this month, Yusuf signed this proposal into law.

In 2014, during Yusuf’s first stint as Aceh’s governor, I interviewed him about his white-knuckle escape from the tsunami in 2004 and his 2007 election victory. A proud former rebel, Yusuf has long opposed Sharia’s more extreme laws, and he refused to sign a draft Sharia bylaw in 2009 that would have allowed the authorities to stone adulterers to death.

The government should be abolishing this brutal punishment and the abusive laws that allow it, not flogging people in the shadows to mollify squeamish investors

Now Yusuf, who was last year elected governor for a second time, seems to be trying to gloss over a barbaric violation of basic rights by hiding it from public view. The government should be abolishing this brutal punishment and the abusive laws that allow it, not flogging people in the shadows to mollify squeamish investors.

Meanwhile, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who maintains that Indonesia is a beacon of moderation and tolerance, has failed to protect the rights of the country’s beleaguered minorities. He should make it clear to Yusuf that hiding abuses is not the same as ending them, that the moral outrage over public floggings was not a one-time reaction, and that Aceh is bound by Indonesia’s constitution and international human-rights commitments.

Perhaps the message Yusuf and Jokowi need to hear again is that the world is watching.

In separate raids on March 12 and March 29, vigilantes twice detained two people and turned them over to the Sharia police. In the first raid, vigilantes targeted a hair salon and detained a man and a transgender woman who worked there. The Sharia police claim to have found “evidence” of same-sex conduct, including condoms and “transaction money” from the transgender woman.

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On March 29 – exactly a year from when Muhammad and Hanif were arrested in 2017 – vigilantes forcibly entered a private house and called the Sharia police, who arrested two male college students for allegedly having sex. The Sharia police seized condoms, cell phones, and a mattress as evidence of their alleged “crime.” All four detainees remain in Sharia police custody, pending trial in a religious court.

Last year’s experience demonstrated that global agitation was noticed after the fact – even from stubborn officials who uphold these abusive laws. This time around, if the court sentences the four detainees to lashes, we won’t see it on TV or read about it in the newspapers.

The time for international outrage is now.

Kyle Knight is a researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. He was previously a fellow at the Williams Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles and a Fulbright scholar in Nepal. As a journalist he has worked for Agence France-Presse in Nepal and for IRIN, the UN’s humanitarian news service, reporting from Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. He has previously worked for UNAIDS, for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, and in the children’s rights and health and human rights divisions at Human Rights Watch. He studied cultural anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina.