The only province in Indonesia allowed to enforce Sharia law may be testing the limits of this agreement with Jakarta as local Islamic law officials consider introducing a harsh form of capital punishment for convicted murderers—beheadings.
The head of both Aceh's human rights and Sharia law offices, a man named Syukri M Yusuf, floated the idea before the press earlier this week, explaining that the Islamic law of qishas, or beheadings, as a way to lower the province's murder rate. Syukri added that his office was only considering the measure and had yet to make a decision.
"It's still just a plan," he told local media. "We'll still do some research this year to see the public's response, so we can determine what we should do."
But this is how laws get passed in Indonesia. Public officials routinely float controversial ideas in the press to gauge the public's reaction before deciding what to do next. New laws for the proposed revision of the national Criminal Code like outlawing sex before marriage and co-habitation, were mentioned in interviews with reporters years before they seemingly secured their spot in the revised draft.
Watch: Sharia's Lash: Crowd's Cheered as Gay Men Caned Dozens of Times in Indonesia
More often than not, when a public official suddenly tells the press about some controversial new law, it's because they want to implement it, but not without checking to see if it's going to tax too much of their political capital first.
Aceh, though, is a special circumstance. The province was granted special autonomy in 2005 as a way to end a decades-long separatist conflict that cost an estimated 15,000 lives. Under this agreement, the province was afforded the freedom to run its own political parties, and enforce it's own version of Sharia law.
This means that local officials like Syukri need to worry far less about what the rest of the country thinks of their laws—at least until something happens that makes Jakarta feel the need to intervene. This is what happened after local authorities expanded Sharia law to include caning gay men. When Islamic authorities caned two gay men "caught" having sex in a private residence by a mob of vigilantes, the national and international backlash were seemingly too much for Jakarta. The central government didn't tell them to stop caning gay men—after all the rest of Indonesia is in the middle of a similar moral panic targeting the LGBTQ community. Instead, Sharia authorities were told to cane people behind closed doors and out of sight of the international media.
Syukri told the press that Aceh was more than capable of implementing beheadings under its agreement with the central government. The "Qanun Jinayat" gives them the legal basis to enforce Sharia law, he explained. But to what extent?
For more than a decade, Aceh has enforced a sort of Sharia law "lite"—outlawing only three things, adultery, gambling, and alcohol. But in recent year, Sharia law has been expanded to affect non-Muslim residents, as well as the province's LGBTQ community. As the boundaries of the Sharia Police's authority creeped further from the core of the law, they became the province's de-facto morality police, a task force increasingly obsessed with the tightness of women's skinny jeans and whether they were sitting side-saddle on the back of a motorbike.
But the wider use of Sharia law—and harsher penalties—has won authorities in Aceh more than a few fans in Indonesia. A prominent member of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) supposed the idea of implementing qishas in Aceh. Cholil Nafis, a chairman at the MUI, told the local press that the threat of beheadings would cause Aceh's murder rates to plummet because "the perpetrator will be deterred and won't do it again."
Of course, he's right, but only because it's pretty hard for a criminal to commit a new crime after he's been beheaded. And is this even really a law and order issue? Proponents of the beheading law argue that it will lower murder rates by acting as a deterrent by making would-be murders too scared of the executioner's sword to kill another human being.
But it won't. Saudi Arabia, which enforces similar methods, has a far higher murder rate than Indonesia. Take into account the fact that murder is already a capital offense in Indonesia, and that the murder rate is already pretty low—43 people were murdered in 2016 in a province of 5 million—and the law and order argument starts to fall apart pretty fast.
So what's actually behind this measure? Politics and religion. Islamist parties in both Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia have been pushing for harsher penalties under Sharia law. In Indonesia, it's the expansion of Islamic law to new previously immune communities. And in Malaysia, it's a push to establish what's called Hudud law—a far harsher form of Sharia that could opened the door to the stoning of women caught having sex outside of marriage and the amputation of thieves' hands.
But could it actually pass? Experts told VICE that it's unlikely. Agustinus Pohan, a criminal law expert at Universitas Parahyangan, explained that Aceh's special autonomy has its limits, especially when a law like this contradicts national laws on capital punishment.
Under Indonesian law, the only method of sanctioned execution is death by firing squad. It's just "not possible," to suddenly add an executioner's sword to the mix, Agustinus told VICE. "Are we really going to change the national law," he asked.
The province is only allowed to utilize penalties already included in the jinayat, explained Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty International.
“The Aceh provincial administration cannot implement capital punishment in the form of beheading, even if it’s based on their special autonomy status,” Usman told VICE.
But what about the law and order argument? Usman dismissed it outright, adding that capital punishment in any form isn't a deterrent for crime. "Just take a look at European countries, such as the Scandinavia, that don’t implement capital punishment but are safer in general, compared to countries that implement capital punishment," he explained.