When President Obama went to Indonesia last month, he lauded its embrace of democracy in a speech at the University of Indonesia but made clear that equality was essential to its success. "It will be the rights of citizens that will stitch together this remarkable Nusantara [archipelago] ... an insistence that every child born in this country should be treated equally, whether they come from Java or Aceh; from Bali or Papua," he said.
His words played well in Jakarta, but there are serious assaults on equality in Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province. There, the application of a local law ostensibly inspired by Islam is systematically denying people of the same right to freedom of association and privacy that all Indonesians are supposed to enjoy, along with physical integrity and protection from violence by the state.
On Sept. 17, less than two months before Mr. Obama's comments, local media in Aceh reported that a young widow and a male friend, both in their 20s, had been attacked violently by a group of local residents in Banda Aceh.
The group broke into the man's souvenir shop, found the couple together on the second floor, seized them, dumped sewer water on them and turned them over to the Shariah police. The Shariah police, in turn, accused the couple of breaking the law and promptly offered them a choice: marry or face a criminal process that could lead to eight lashes with a cane. The man told authorities he would rather be caned than marry, and the woman, in tears, replied, "I would rather commit suicide."
Such an incident would be unthinkable in Jakarta, Surabaya or many other cities throughout the archipelago. So how is it that in today's Indonesia - whose "spirit of tolerance" Mr. Obama recalled fondly in his speech - two adults capable of making decisions about how to conduct their own lives could be subjected to such state-tolerated violence, humiliation and deprivation of their privacy and freedom for engaging in peaceful, consensual and private activity?
In Aceh, under the so-called Seclusion Law, it is a crime for an unmarried man and woman who are not related by blood to associate in an "isolated place." Since 1999, Indonesia's national government has explicitly permitted Aceh alone to become a territory that implements Shariah laws, or laws derived from the teachings of Islam, that carry criminal penalties. This was an effort to curry popular support in a territory that had been embroiled in a separatist struggle with Jakarta for decades. The Seclusion Law has been in place since 2003. By 2005, the members of Aceh's newly created Shariah police force had begun conducting surveillance and arresting, investigating and recommending suspected violators for prosecution before Aceh's Shariah courts. In 2009 alone, the Shariah police in Aceh recorded 836 violations of the law prohibiting "seclusion," which doesn't include many enforcement actions by the regular police or by private individuals.
In Aceh, I spoke with a number of people who had been accused of violating the Seclusion Law and had suffered violence, humiliation and abuse at the hands of Aceh's Shariah police force, the regular police or private citizens, who are encouraged under local laws to take enforcement into their own hands.
Government officials in Aceh and Jakarta have largely ignored reports of abuse, but repeated reports of violent "seclusion" apprehensions featured in the Acehnese media demonstrate that such abuse will go on unless and until officials address the problem.
Aceh's governor, Irwandi Yusuf, has sought during the past year to prevent even more repressive laws from entering into force. But both Mr. Irwandi and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono need to take concrete steps to secure the repeal or judicial invalidation of fundamentally flawed laws like the law on seclusion, to radically alter the mandate of the abusive Shariah police force and to crack down on private violence committed in the name of morality.
Mr. Obama and leaders of other governments concerned with maintaining and strengthening Indonesia's democratic transition should make it clear that such fundamentally repressive laws have no place in a rights-respecting democracy. The decades since Mr. Obama's boyhood may have brought many benefits to the people of Indonesia, but for the vast majority of Aceh's nearly 4.5 million people, equal recognition and protection of the fundamental human rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of religion are not among them.
Christen Broecker is a fellow at Human Rights Watch and the author of a new Human Rights Watch report, "Policing Morality."