Aceh: Local Sharia Laws Violate Rights


Two local Sharia laws in Indonesia's Aceh province violate rights and are often enforced abusively by public officials and even private individuals, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The country's central government and the Aceh provincial government should take steps to repeal the two laws, Human Rights Watch said.

The 89-page report, "Policing Morality: Abuses in the Application of Sharia in Aceh, Indonesia," documents the experiences of people accused of violating Sharia laws prohibiting "seclusion" and imposing public dress requirements on Muslims. The "seclusion" law makes association by unmarried individuals of the opposite sex a criminal offense in some circumstances. While the dress requirement is gender-neutral on its face, in practice it imposes far more onerous restrictions on women. The report also details evidence that the laws are selectively enforced - rarely if ever applied to wealthy or politically-connected individuals.

The laws are among five Sharia-inspired criminal laws adopted in Aceh on issues ranging from charitable giving, to gambling, to Islamic ritual and proper Muslim behavior. Human Rights Watch takes no position on Sharia law per se, which supporters say is a complete system of guidance on all matters in life, or on the provisions that regulate the internal workings of Islam. However, the two laws singled out in the report are applied abusively and violate both Indonesian constitutional protections and international human rights law, says Human Rights Watch. Aceh is the only province in Indonesia explicitly authorized by national law to adopt laws derived from Islam.

"These two laws deny people's right to make their own decisions about who they meet and what they wear," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.  "The laws, and their selective enforcement, are an invitation to abuse."

Sharia police officers have interpreted the broadly worded "seclusion" law to prohibit merely sitting and talking in a "quiet" space with a member of the opposite sex to whom one is not married or related, regardless of whether there is evidence of intimacy. Serious abuses under the law documented by Human Rights Watch include aggressive interrogation; conditioning the release of suspects upon their agreement to marry; and in one case, the rape of a woman by Sharia police while they held her in detention. Sharia police officials told Human Rights Watch that they sometimes force women and girls to submit to virginity exams as part of the investigation.

Members of the community also identify, apprehend, and punish suspected violators on their own initiative, as permitted in certain circumstances by Aceh's local laws. In several cases, community members arbitrarily determined that people were guilty of "seclusion," and assaulted the suspects, beating them severely or burning them with lit cigarettes while apprehending them.

The community members were not held accountable for these offenses. Some of those accused, however, faced penalties, including forced marriage, expulsion from the village, and arbitrary fines, determined by traditional leaders with no semblance of due process.

One woman, Rohani, described a 2009 incident in which members of her community apprehended and beat her 17-year-old daughter's boyfriend after he came to visit her for an hour at night, even though Rohani and her younger daughter were at home. The community then attempted to compel the couple to marry. The Sharia police and regular police detained the pair, but not the attackers, overnight for investigation. Rohani was later told by representatives of the community that she should hand over certain goods as punishment for her daughter's offense. Rohani complied, but no one in the community was held accountable for assaulting her daughter's boyfriend.

"Sharia police too often investigate alleged infringements unprofessionally or abusively and then demand inappropriate, and ultimately illegal, resolutions like trying to force couples to marry," Pearson said. "The government also needs to rein in vigilantes who commit abuses against ‘seclusion' suspects."

Women constitute the overwhelming majority of those reprimanded by the Sharia police under the law requiring Islamic attire. While the law requires men to wear clothing that covers the body from the knee to the navel, it requires Muslim women to cover the entire body, except for hands, feet, and face, meaning that they are obligated to wear the jilbab (Islamic headscarf). The law also prohibits clothing that is transparent or reveals the shape of the body.

Human Rights Watch spoke to several women in Aceh who had been stopped by the Sharia police during patrols or at public roadblocks established to monitor compliance with the dress code. The Sharia police recorded their personal details, lectured them, and threatened them with detention or lashing if they repeated their behavior.

Both the Seclusion Law and dress requirements run afoul of well-established international human rights law. Under international treaties that Indonesia has ratified, consensual association - of a sexual nature or otherwise - between adults in private is a protected aspect of the right to privacy. Aceh's ban on "seclusion" similarly violates the right to manifest one's religious beliefs freely and the right to freedom of expression. It gives rise to lasting negative effects, particularly for women accused of violations, who suffer enduring stigmatization. Aceh's Islamic clothing requirement violates individuals' rights to personal autonomy, expression, and to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience.

Human Rights Watch called on Aceh's provincial legislature to repeal both laws. In the meantime, the Aceh governor should stop Sharia police from arresting and detaining people suspected of "seclusion," and police should investigate and prosecute violence by those attempting to enforce the laws.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should order the home affairs minister to review all local laws that claim to promote morality, Human Rights Watch said. The president should also petition the Supreme Court to review the compatibility of the Seclusion Law and law on dress requirements with the Indonesian Constitution and national law. Human Rights Watch noted that a number of other local governments in Indonesia have looked to Aceh's laws as a model.

"The Aceh government should repeal laws that contravene international standards and investigate and prosecute all acts of violence," Pearson said. "People in Aceh should have the same rights as Indonesian citizens everywhere."

Testimony from people accused of violating Aceh's Sharia-inspired laws:

"My mom came to get me [from the Sharia police office] at 7 a.m. I was crying. The head lecturer at my campus, Doni, was there to lecture me. A Sharia police officer told him that I had been caught [on an isolated road on a motorcycle with my boyfriend]. He told my mom and me that I should be buried and stoned to death. I said, ‘Sir, I was only trying to look for a shortcut, and I should be stoned for that? What about the officers who raped me last night?'"

- Nita, 20, apprehended by the Sharia police (Wilayatul Hisbah) in January 2010 for the crime of "seclusion" and then raped while in their custody.

"They beat Budi in front of the house, and then they brought him to the neighborhood [prayer space] on foot. There, they kept hitting him and burned him with cigarettes. Many other men from the community came - probably around 50. And many of them were hitting him.... The police didn't question anyone that night about what happened to Budi, even though he had a broken rib, cigarette burns on his body, a black and blue face, and split, bleeding lips.... The government has to make sure this won't happen again to other people."
- Rohani, witness to the 2009 beating of her 17 year-old-daughter Sri's 21-year-old boyfriend, Budi, by community members who believed that Sri and Budi had committed "seclusion" inside Rohani's home.

"I heard noise, like a crowd of angry people. There was a group of more than 10 but less than 50 men.... They broke the door, came in, and without saying anything, they punched [Nurdin]. His nose was bleeding.... They took some of our things, like our handphones and chargers, and a small television set. One of them touched my breasts, like I am a loose woman, being caught with a man in a house. I was so embarrassed.... After I was released [from police custody on suspicion of ‘seclusion'] I wanted to leave [Aceh] immediately ... because my [confession] was fiction, in a very embarrassing way. It was so sickening, and I was so embarrassed.... It was hard for me, but even harder for [Nurdin]. When he came back home, the village head told him he couldn't stay there anymore and that he had to give the village all of his things, and money to slaughter a cow or sheep and cook it, as compensation for embarrassing the village."
- Rosmiati, attacked by neighbors, who accused her and a male friend, Nurdin, of committing "seclusion" after Rosmiati went inside his home alone for 20 minutes in the early evening in January 2009.

"I said, ‘It's my choice to wear the veil - it's my business with God.' The [Sharia police officer's] answer was, ‘No, there is a rule in Islam that regulates it.' Then they gave back my ID card and told me that if I did the same thing three times I would be whipped.... I might want to use a veil, but not because I'm forced by the [Sharia police], because I want to."
- Dewi, stopped by the Sharia police for violating the Islamic attire requirement in May 2010 by not wearing a veil.