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Now Indonesia Wants to Hide Its Floggings

Global Outrage Over Public Caning of Gay Men Spurs Sly Rethink

An Indonesian man is publicly caned for having gay sex in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia May 23, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The authorities in Aceh – Indonesia’s only province that implements full Sharia (Islamic law) – clearly feel stung by the international outcry they generated when police publicly flogged two gay men in May. Their solution, it appears, is to put an end to public floggings.

Instead, they’re just going to flog people indoors, away from the cameras.

Aceh’s position within Indonesia is unique. A 30-year separatist armed conflict seeded deep distrust between Acehnese and the national government. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami led to a ceasefire that soon ended the war but wrought unprecedented devastation. A 2005 peace agreement made Aceh the only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces that can legally adopt bylaws derived from Sharia – although such provisionsmodeled on Aceh’s, are spreading nationwide. The province’s 2014 criminal code prohibits all same-sex relations and mandates public caning as punishment.

Under its Sharia bylaws, Aceh caned 339 people last year for offenses ranging from gambling to adultery. The May caning of two gay men, who received 83 lashes each, appears to be Indonesia’s first public caning for homosexuality and sparked considerable international outrage. Flogging as punishment is also recognized under international law as a form of torture, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred Acehnese authorities so far. So what prompted the decision to end floggings in public?

Media reports suggest that Acehnese leaders are now worried that videos of May’s flogging, which were widely circulated online, make the province unappealing for investors.

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

But now Irwandi, recently elected governor for a second time, seems to be trying to gloss over a barbaric violation of basic rights. The government should be abolishing this brutal punishment and the abusive laws that allow it, not whitewashing flogging 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 Irwandi that hiding abuses is not the same as ending them, and that the moral outrage over public floggings was not a one-time reaction. The world is watching. 

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