As local activists say caning as a punishment in Indonesia's Aceh province is increasing in use and severity, the public caning of two gay men is being questioned by some residents.
Amnesty International has called the punishment, meted out by a religious court in the province which adheres to Sharia or Islamic law, a flagrant violation of international human rights law and says it "may amount to torture."
Supriyadi Widodo Eddyono, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, told VOA Indonesia that there have been marked changes in the practice of caning in Aceh since last year — the number of those punished is increasing, as is the severity of the sentences.
"There were at least 350 people caned in 2016 and it's a significant increase," he said. "The increase is not just about the number of convicts, but also the severity of the punishments. Caning used to be a social sanction to embarrass or create a deterrent effect, but now to actually harm a person."
Although the punishment drew a crowd Tuesday, not all Acehnese support the practice. Uzair, who was in attendance, told VOA Indonesia that most citizens are skeptical about the implementation of Qanun Jinayat, the part of Sharia that governs the punishment for immoral acts. The section covering same-sex relations, Article 63 (1), states any people found guilty face a maximum sentence of 100 lashes or pay a maximum fine of 1,000 grams of pure gold or face 100-month imprisonment.
Hundreds of local residents gathered in front of Syiah Kuala Mosque in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, to watch the caning of eight people, including the two gay men who received the most severe punishments.
Wearing white gowns, the two men stood on a stage praying while a team of hooded men lashed their backs with a cane 83 times. The pair, aged 20 and 23, were found in bed together after local residents who suspected they were gay entered their boarding house in March. The men were detained and sentenced to 85 lashes on May 17 by the Banda Aceh Sharia Court, a punishment which was reduced to reflect time served.
They were the first gay men caned under Sharia law in Aceh. Consensual same-sex relations are not treated as crimes under the Indonesian Criminal Code, according to Amnesty International. Sharia bylaws have been in force in Aceh since the enactment of the province's Special Autonomy Law in 2001, and the province fully enacted a strict Islamic criminal code in 2014. It is enforced by Islamic courts.
"Many Acehnese and even Indonesians are skeptical [about caning] … because it's only punishing immoral acts such as gambling, drinking, prostitution or gay acts, but never those who are corrupt," Uzair said.
"This law is only used to punish us, the people, not the officials," he added, describing a case of a local official caught hiring prostitutes. "He was not punished at all. Our local leader argued that there was no evidence. We are speechless."
Uzair went on to say people do not speak up about the authorities' use of Qanun Jinayat.
"We live in an age and area where the silent majority or the voice of the ordinary people are not heard enough, because there are voices of conservative groups who talk loudly," he said. "If we say something that is considered contrary to their view, we will be accused as infidel or anti-Islam."
In April after the two men were detained, Widodo's organization issued a statement against the use of Qanun Jinayat in Aceh, saying the practice had the potential to cause discrimination of the LGBT community and other groups.
"The state has gone too far by interfering on the private affairs of its citizens and making their personal matters a public affair. This will eventually lead to discrimination and injustice against vulnerable groups, including LGBT communities."
This report originated with VOA Indonesia.