Head bowed and wincing, the 20-year-old man convicted of gay sex acts chanted prayers repeatedly as a rattan switch rained down 83 blows on his back outside a mosque in Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province where Sharia law is in force.
The flogging of the young man and his partner on Tuesday marked the first time that individuals have been caned for gay sex in the Muslim-majority nation, which practices a moderate form of Islam but has grown increasingly conservative in recent years.
International rights groups had called on the Indonesian government to cancel the “inhuman and degrading punishment.”
A prosecutor at the edge of the stage counted out the lashes, a rhythm punctuated by derisive shouts from some of the 2,000 spectators crammed against an iron fence around the stage where hooded “executioners” took turns carrying out the flogging.
After each 20 strokes, a doctor asked the young man if he was capable of continuing. He nodded slowly, without breaking off his Quranic recitation.
‘You must follow the rules’
Eight other people convicted of intimate acts outside marriage were also caned Tuesday outside Shuhada Mosque on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.
Caning is frequent in Aceh, but the spectacle marked the first time that people convicted of gay sex had been caned in the province, where an expanded sharia criminal code with harsher punishments went into force in October 2015.
On May 17, a Sharia court judge sentenced the young man and his partner to 85 lashes, minus two for the two months they had been held in jail.
The men were arrested on March 28 after vigilantes broke into their house and found them in bed together.
“The witness peered through the wall when M.H. and M.T. were committing gay sex and then called other witnesses and the neighbors. After seeing what happened, the community decided to break in the door of the defendant’s room,” the judge said, referring to the defendants by their initials.
Using a camera-phone, the vigilantes filmed the raid. The video, which circulated on social media, showed vigilantes insulting the pair while one tried to call someone for help.
Gema Demokrasi, an Indonesian activist coalition, called on President Joko Widodo on Monday to “guarantee the protection of the LGBT community and respect the privacy of citizens” after 141 men were arrested at a “gay striptease” in North Jakarta and made to undergo police interrogation naked.
But people at the caning in Aceh said the punishment was appropriate for local norms.
“Maybe [elsewhere] in the world this is a human rights violation, but if you’re talking about the law in Aceh, it is not,” Muhammad Isa, a spectator, told BenarNews. “If you are in Aceh you must follow the rules, the law that applies in Aceh.”
The two men withstood the caning without collapsing, although officials paused after every 20 lashes to give the convicts a medical check and a drink of water.
Many people in the crowd, which included women and children, recorded the proceedings on their electronic devices.
Indah Sofiana, 21, a student at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University, said she had come with friends to watch the caning of the gay couple.
“They lived near my rented room when they were arrested, so I was curious to see how they were whipped,” she told BenarNews.
Standing among the spectators, M.H.’s father could not bring himself to look directly at his second-born son as his sentence was carried out.
“I’m sad, but he did wrong. What else can I say. I accept that he should be whipped,” the 50-year-old farmer told BenarNews afterwards. He asked that his name not be used.
He had come 4.5 hours in a public minibus from his village in Bireuen regency, to see his son caned and to take him home afterward.
The two barely spoke when they met after the caning.
“I didn’t look to see if his back was hurt. I didn’t ask. He said nothing. I also didn’t ask anything. As a parent, I hope that he is aware and repentant,” he said, adding that after arriving in his village M.H. would be placed in an Islamic school for rehabilitation.
The young man had been in Banda Aceh for three years for college, but his father said he had no further thought about the education of his son. “The important thing now is he repent for his deeds.”
‘Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading’
The Qanun Jinayat, Aceh’s sharia criminal code, allows for up to 100 strokes or 1,000 grams of gold or 100 months in jail for gay sex or sodomy.
During their trial, which had only two sessions, the men were not accompanied by lawyers, although the judge said this had been offered to the two defendants.
“We’ve been trying to find a lawyer, but no one is willing to be our legal counsel,” M.H. told BenarNews from behind the prison bar after the verdict was announced.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the ruling “a barbaric act.”
“This is a low point, once again for Aceh, and for Indonesia,” HRW Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono told BenarNews last week.
“Indonesia often claims that it is a moderate Islamic country. How do you explain ‘moderate’ when there is a caning punishment a la the Taliban in Aceh?” Harsono asked.
The sentence was also blasted by Amnesty International which called on the Indonesian government to stop using caning “which constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and may amount to torture.”
Responding to the statements, Marzuki, head of investigations for Aceh’s Sharia police force, told BenarNews that “flogging in Aceh is not torture, but a lesson.”
Four other couples were caned earlier after being convicted of ikhtilath, forbidden acts of intimacy such as hugging and kissing between unmarried heterosexual couples.
The individuals were caned between 21 and 28 times. One young woman’s punishment was paused after nine lashes because she had trouble withstanding the pain, but her whipping was resumed and completed later.
After the caning, all ten individuals were brought to the Banda Aceh’s prosecutor’s office for administrative processing and released.
M.H. and his father boarded a public minibus to return to their village.