Updated at 5 p.m. ET on 2017-05-17
In an unprecedented case, a court in Indonesia’s only province that enforces Islamic law convicted two gay men on Wednesday for having sexual relations and ordered that they each receive 85 lashes of the cane, despite pleas for leniency.
The defendants, whose full identities were withheld, are expected to be caned in public next week in Aceh province, before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“Lighten my punishment,” one of the defendants, identified as 24-year-old M.T., said as he covered his face with both hands after a judge at the Sharia court in the provincial capital Banda Aceh asked if he accepted the sentence.
The judge heading the panel, Khairil Jamal, said the defendant could appeal.
In a separate trial on Wednesday, the other defendant, “M.H.,” received the same verdict and sentencing.
The punishment of 85 lashes for engaging in homosexual sex was harsher than the 80 lashes the prosecution had requested for each man.
Wednesday’s verdicts marked the first cases in which gay people were convicted in Aceh for homosexual sex acts since the province passed strict anti-gay laws in 2014, which came into effect a year later.
While the judges said the defendants could be represented at trial, neither appeared with an attorney in court.
“We’ve been trying to find a lawyer, but no one is willing to be our legal counsel,” M.H., 20, told BenarNews from behind the prison bar after the verdict was announced.
The men’s families were not seen in court on Wednesday.
“He is a quiet and good boy, who performs Salat (Islamic prayers) diligently. Prior coming to Banda Aceh to attend college two years ago, he lived in a pesantren (Islamic boarding school),” the father of one of the men told reporters last week.
Defendant M.H. sits as he hears his verdict and sentence, May 17, 2017. (Nurdin Hasan/BenarNews)
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.
Using a camera phone, the vigilantes filmed the raid. The video, which circulated on social media but was not presented as evidence, showed vigilantes insulting the pair while one tried to call someone for help.
The verdicts state that M.T. and M.H. had been legally and convincingly proven guilty of committing gay sex (liwath), which can be punished with a maximum of 100 lashes, 100 months in jail or a fine of 1,000 grams of gold. The prosecutor had asked that they receive 80 lashes, but the judges added five lashes to the punishment for each defendant.
The judges said “the defendants as Muslims should uphold the values of Islam being enforced in Aceh.
“The defendants committed the act repeatedly and it could disturb the community because they can influence others to do the same.”
Chief prosecutor Gulmaini Wardani said she would immediately coordinate with Wilayatul Hisbah (sharia police) to determine the time of the caning.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the ruling, stating, “the verdict is a barbaric act.”
“This is a low point, once again for Aceh, and for Indonesia,” HRW Indonesian researcher Andreas Harsono told BenarNews on Wednesday.
He said Aceh’s Islamic criminal code is discriminatory, violates the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution and the equality of citizens, as agreed by the Free Aceh Movement when it signed the Helsinki agreement with the Government of Indonesia in 2005 to end the 30 years of armed conflict in Aceh.
“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 chairman of Aceh’s House of Representatives, Muharruddin, disagreed, saying Sharia law in Aceh had gone through a long process at local and national levels before being enacted.
“If it is a violation of human rights … the caning punishment would be impossible to be imposed,” he said.
The verdicts were handed down in Aceh on May 17, the same day that the United Nations and LGBT communities worldwide were marking the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
“It is unacceptable that LGBTI people face violence and discrimination just because of who they are and who they love,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
“They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our friends and colleagues. LGBTI rights are human rights. We must challenge prejudice wherever we are,” Sidibé added in a statement.