Aceh's Sharia Law Still Controversial in Indonesia

Lawmakers in Indonesia's Aceh Province recently passed a law that imposes death by stoning on Muslim adulterers.  Aceh was granted the right to implement Sharia law under a peace agreement with the national government that ended a long separatist struggle.  But the laws and punishments are unpopular and, many argue, at odds with Indonesia's national laws. 

Banda Aceh's grand mosque is a soaring monument to Islam.

It is here, on the northern tip of Sumatra, that Arab traders brought Islam to Southeast Asia.  And it is here today that conservative Muslims seek the establishment of full Sharia law.

Under an agreement with the Indonesian government to end three decades of separatist fighting, the province received the right to implement Sharia.  For instance, caning is used to punish Muslims caught gambling and drinking, and for unwed couples engaging in sexual activity.

In September lawmakers went a step further, passing a law that would punish Muslim adulterers with being stoned to death.

Prosperous Justice Party member Moharriadi Syafari was a sponsor of the bill.  He explains that it is difficult for people in the West to understand Sharia, but the stoning law has the support of Acehnese people.

He says they do not understand why in America there is death by injection and in China execution by shooting.  Syafari says that stoning is what is ordered by God and when they implement Sharia they will receive blessings."

But Eva Zain, the director of the Aceh Human Rights NGO Coalition, says extreme interpretations of Sharia law are not compatible with Aceh's culture.

"They are creating a regulation with what they thought, not what is the context today, what is the psychology, what people in Aceh need," said Zain.

Objections have also been raised in Jakarta, where the central government has called for a review of the law.

Professor Nasaruddin Umar heads the Islamic Community Guidance office at the national Ministry of Religion.  He refers to the stoning law using the Indonesian word "rajam".

"Why do you need the the 'rajam' law?  It is very different to the Mohammed period," said Umar.  "Mohammed tried to avoid, but why are you looking for the rajam.  This is very different.  When [in] the Mohammed period there was only one case .., rajam case."

Supporters of the law say it is unlikely that an adulterer will ever be stoned to death.  But they say the law is necessary as a deterrent. 

Muslim Ibrahim is the head of the Aceh Ulema's Council.  He explains the requirement of four witnesses will mean convictions are almost impossible.  He agrees the punishment is cruel, but it is important that people are overshadowed by the law.  If people are afraid they will not commit the crime.

Acehnese people are divided.

Some, like Ade, see it as part of their commitment to Islam.  She supports the law since it has been used for a long time, since the era of the Prophet.  She says it is not cruel because adultery is a big sin.

Anwar is less certain.  He says he understands that according to Islam adulterers must be stoned to death, but he is not sure for Aceh and Indonesia if that law is the way it should be.  He says, however, in the end they will support it.

Others worry that the law will be enforced unfairly, with those with political connections avoiding punishment.  And some fear that it not be imposed in true accordance with Islam.

Rights activist Zain says if Muslims like herself speak out against the law, they are labeled unbelievers or against Sharia.  She says lawmakers and others are manipulating the law for political ends and should focus instead on developing Aceh.

"How to bring justice for the victims during the conflict, that's what we need now. We need education regulation.  And then we need regulation on health, where it is easy to access to health [care]," she said.  "We need the welfare, where is the economic growth?"

Some of the lawmakers who supported the law were voted out of Aceh's legislature in April. Many in the province hope the new parliament will repeal or revise the law.
Acehenese legal groups say if lawmakers fail to do so, they will challenge the stoning law in Jakarta's Supreme Court.

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