Indonesia: Activists Fight To Overturn Oppressive Law in Aceh

On September 14, 2009, the province of Aceh in Indonesia, which has an autonomous regional government, passed a law that seriously challenges the rights of many of its residents. The Qanun Jinayat (Qanun is an Arabic term and is used in Aceh to denote local law, Jinayat is an Arabic term for criminal) calls for death by stoning for adultery committed by married heterosexual people, eight-and-a-half years in prison and 100 lashes of the cane for premarital sex or homosexuality, 400 lashings for child rape, and 60 lashings for gambling. Hardline Islamist legislators in Aceh broadened the meaning to include any sexual activity outside marriage, including sexual activity between unmarried people, male-to-male sexual activity, and female-to-female sexual activity.

Responding strongly to the stoning penalty, Ifdal Kasim, chair of Indonesia's Human Rights Commission has lambasted the provincial legislature for "taking Aceh back to the 14th or 15th century."

Indonesian LGBT groups Violet Grey and Arus Pelangi are working with Acehnese human rights organizations and IGLHRC to entirely repeal or revise the Qanun Jinayat and bring it in line with Indonesia's international obligations and its reputation for being a liberal democracy. Indonesia is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Covenant Against Torture, and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Syariat (also spelled sharia) was first adopted in the 17th century when Aceh was still an independent sultanate. Under Dutch colonial rule and subsequent Indonesian independence the Acehnese continued to adhere to syariat as a moral guide. Under syariat, prayer was mandated for Muslims, Muslim women had to wear head scarves, and gambling and use of alcohol was punishable by caning. However, these penalties were not enforced strictly because Aceh was still fighting for independence and the separatist movement did not aspire to impose syariat in an independent Aceh. In the 2005 peace agreement between the national government and Achenese separatists, syariat was enshrined as the basis for legislation and law enforcement in Aceh. Proponents of syariat initially claimed that it would be an expression of values and not strictly enforced. Critics say that conservative clerics and lawmakers have used self-governance as carte blanche to impose increasingly stringent sanctions on the people of Aceh, couching their interests as measures for preventing "moral degradation". The latter is evident in the formation of a morality police force to conduct surveillance of Acehenese society and enforce stricter adherence to syariat.

Human rights organizations in Indonesia are counting on the Governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, and the newly elected secular parliament to oppose the stoning penalty in the Qanun Jinayat, which outgoing Islamic fundamentalist legislators pushed through before the new parliament could be installed in October 2009.

LGBT groups are concerned that even if stoning were removed from the Qanun, the punishment for homosexuality will remain, and are working to highlight this issue so that it is not overshadowed.

The Acehnese law is set to come into effect 30 days after passage unless there is intervention by Governor Irwandi's government or Indonesia's Supreme Court, which has the authority to nullify local laws that contradict or violate the spirit of national laws.

The Indonesian Criminal Code currently criminalizes adultery with a maximum of 10 months in prison, but only if a complainant comes forward. Indonesia’s Constitution prohibits discrimination on any ground, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Principles of pluralism and liberalism form the basis of Indonesia's democracy, where pluralism includes sexual diversity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and liberalism includes the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

IGLHRC stands in solidarity with those working at local and national levels in Indonesia to support the repeal of the Qanun Jinayat. IGLHRC is not requesting any action from its supporters at this time.