The Days of Seeing Public Canings Like This are Almost Behind Us

Emphasis on the word "public."

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12 July 2017, 12:26pm

Foto oleh Rizky Rahadianto

It was the caning heard round the world. When local officials in Indonesia's only province allowed to practice Sharia law decided it was a good time to start caning men for having gay sex behind closed doors, few probably realized the eventual fallout. But when the masked executioner wound back to deliver the first strike of a rattan cane, the entire word was watching.

The headlines painted a less-than-flattering portrait of law and order in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. "No place to hide for LGBT people in Indonesia's Aceh province," read a headline on BBC. "Indonesia: Stop Public Flogging of Gay Men," wrote Human Rights Watch.

The Guardian had the following takeaway:

What transpired in Aceh this week is, on one level, the logical extension of sharia in an unruly region that has long been left to its own devices. But many believe that it is more sinister than that: that Aceh's visible conservatism is an emblem of rising Islamism across Indonesia, where a toxic mix of religion and political opportunism has been percolating for some time.

It's not the kind of image the administration of Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to present to the rest of the world. Indonesia has, for years, been held up by the West as the poster child for moderate, democratic Islam. But videos of two gay men being caned before a crowd of cheering onlookers does little to uphold this idea.

"This sickening spectacle, carried out in front of more than a thousand jeering spectators, is an act of utmost cruelty," Josef Benedict, Amnesty International's deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement. "The authorities in Aceh and Indonesia must immediately repeal the law which imposes these punishments, which constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and may amount to torture."

But it wasn't appeals on the grounds of human rights that eventually reached the ears of officials in Indonesia. It was the public relations nightmare these kinds of public canings were causing for government officials and businessmen out in the world looking for foreign investment, according to recent statements made by Aceh's vice governor Nova Iriansyah.

Both the governor and the vice governor of Aceh were called to meet with President Jokowi after his return from the G-20 meeting in Germany, in part to discuss how the canings had hurt Indonesia's image abroad.

"There's the real perception [of Indonesia] and the one from outside the country, which is is not very good," Nova told local media on Wednesday. "Because of this Pak President asked us how the government of Aceh could explain that Indonesia is not like how it was being perceived."

So Sharia officials in Aceh are going to stop caning people? Not exactly. Aceh is going to continue to cane people caught violating Sharia law, Nova explained. They are just going to do it behind closed doors.

"Caning numbers were down, it deterred people from committing crimes," Nova said. "But we don't like the exposure. Every time we do a public caning all the media in the world will report the event. So what we want to do is minimize the news reports. We'll do it in the prison instead of at the mosque after Friday prayers."

Meanwhile, officials in Malaysia's conservative Kelantan province decided it was time to start caning people in there as well. According to Kelantan's Chief Minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the province has already amended its criminal code to allow for canings under its interpretation of Sharia law.

"With the amendment, the sentencing can be carried out in public or prison depending on the court's decision," he told The New Straits Times. "This is in accordance with Islam, as in the sentencing must be done in public."

Kelantan is a stronghold for the Pan-Islamist Party (PAS), an Islamist political party that has been seen cozying up to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition as rumors of a coming snap election continue to swirl in Malaysia. PAS was once a member of the opposition coalition, but the party closed the door to any future reconciliation during a bizarre feud over a concert by US pop star Selena Gomez.

But Sharia canings are only a step in the road for PAS—who have been fighting for years for the implementation of much stricter hudud law that some fear could introduce stonings and the amputation of hands to Kelantan's criminal code.

The lower parliament's debate on the hudud bill is scheduled for later this month.