Their backs were stiff. Their hands held tight in front of their waists. But their faces showed the pain of each strike of the rattan cane.
Two men were caned in front of Banda Aceh's Baiturrahim mosque late last week because they are gay. Vigilante groups, the kinds of self-declared morality police who patrol the streets in parts of Indonesia waging their own "war on sin," had allegedly caught the men making out in a salon in Banda Aceh. One of them told his interrogators that he had paid the other Rp 100,000 ($6.90 USD) for sex. The men were detained and charged with violating Aceh's Sharia law, a penalty that carries a sentence of 90 strikes of a rattan cane.
Aceh is the only place in Indonesia legally allowed to enforce Sharia law—it was granted this authority as part of a special autonomy deal back in 2001 that ended a decades-long separatist conflict. But, for much of that time, the LGBTQ community wasn't on the minds of Islamic authorities.
That's all changed in recent years, as the country as a whole turned against its LGBTQ community in a series of raids on nightlife spots, hotels, spas, and even private residences. It's not illegal to be queer anywhere in Indonesia—outside of Aceh—but that distinction has done little to stem the ongoing crackdown.
In Aceh, it is illegal to be queer, and in May of last year, Sharia authorities caned two gay men for the first time. The canings happened before a braying crowd who cheered with each strike. Video of the caning kind of hard to watch. It's the kind of thing that immediately grabs people's attentions here in Indonesia and overseas, and much of the reaction was pretty critical. (Amnesty International called it a "sickening spectacle.")
President Joko Widodo, concerned that the laws in one remote, tiny province (Aceh represents less than 2 percent of Indonesia's total population) were damaging the country as a whole, suggested that authorities in Aceh stop caning people in public.
The idea was to continue the canings, but move them inside the prison, where the crowds—and the journalists—could be kept at bay. But this idea set off a battle over what, exactly, Sharia law means in Aceh and what role Jakarta has in a province afforded "special autonomy."
Friday's canings occurred, once again, before a massive crowd of spectators. The two men were caned 86 times each, four short of the 90-lash sentences they initially received. And they weren't the only ones caned on Friday. Thirteen others, 15 in all including five woman who were accused of kissing someone without being married.
All of this occurred only nine days after Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf and a local district chief were arrested in a corruption sting by anti-graft investigators with the KPK. The investigators caught the men with Rp 500 million ($34,667 USD) allegedly taken from the special autonomy fund.
It's the biggest corruption case to hit Aceh to-date, one that threatens to take down one of the most-powerful men in the province. Will he face the rattan cane as well? Nope. Aceh's Sharia law doesn't punish corrupt public officials.
What happens between consenting adults behind closed doors? That's another story.
Read more about Aceh: