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Judicial CP - October 2006

Corpun file 18511

Financial Express, Bangladesh, 10 October 2006

Aceh enforces Sharia law with the lash of a cane

By Shawn Donnan

Director Musdaruddin of the Supervisory Agency for the Implementation of Islamic Sharia in the Indonesian province of Aceh places a rattan cane flat across his aide's shoulders before drawing it back so the tip scratches his subordinate's spine.

"You have to be very precise," he says, as a clutch of onlookers in matching tan uniforms nod their approval. "Here it can hurt, it can go into the spine."

The cane must also be 0.7cm-lcm thick, Mr Musdaruddin elaborates, as he steps away and hands his cane to another assistant. The hooded caner must stand a full metre away from the canee; the crowd must stand 10 metres away; and every 10 strokes the attending doctor must ask the canee if he can bear the pain. "If he says 'no' then we continue another day," the director explains.

All of which is to make a point. Mr Musdaruddin takes a booklet from his secretary and opens it to illustrations from Malaysia, Pakistan and Singapore featuring red cane-stung buttocks. "Caning in Aceh is the softest in the world," he declares proudly.

Mr Musdaruddin is the overseer of something that for the time being remains unique in Indonesia. Aceh where more than 160,000 people died as a result of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has in the past 18 months become the only one of Indonesia's 33 provinces to enforce Koranic law, or Sharia. Some people fear that makes it the potential vanguard in a movement to bring Taliban-style law to the world's largest, and still overwhelmingly moderate, Muslim nation.

Since August last year Mr Musdaruddin's religious police have caned more than 140 people for crimes from drinking alcohol to holding hands with an unrelated member of the opposite sex.

Local politicians have yet to decide how to handle more serious crimes such as corruption and theft or whether they will ever allow Mr Musdaruddin's force to use Saudi Arabian-style punishments such as amputations and public stonings.

Still, the move has prompted a big shift in Aceh's social and political climate for both locals and aid workers labouring on the province's multi-billion dollar tsunami reconstruction. At least five candidates running in December's provincial elections have been disqualified for failing new Koran reading tests.

The UN was also forced to complain last month after a religious police squad descended on a World Food Programme compound in search of misbehaving aid workers. Aceh has also become Islamists' model province for Indonesia. "Aceh is a good example," says Irfan Awwas, executive director of the radical Indonesian Mujahideen Council, although he insists Aceh is "not implementing the real Sharia" because it does not yet cut off hands of thieves or stone adulterers. As such, Aceh points to a broader debate. A growing number of local governments have begun in recent years to look at more modest Sharia-influenced by-laws such as dress standards for public servants, and Mr Awwas' group is far from alone in its work.

However, there are signs that Indonesians' long-held reluctance to embrace the codification of Islamic law endures. A recent poll found a majority of Indonesians opposed to becoming an Islamic state and balking at punishments such as cutting off thieves' hands.

In Aceh there are also distinctive dynamics at play. Outside the province, Indonesians like to think of Sharia as a peace offering to the Acehnese. The right to implement it came via a 1999 autonomy package offered by Jakarta as a potential solution to decades of separatist conflict. The Acehnese are considered more pious than other Indonesian Muslims, largely because the province is where Islam is thought to have first arrived in the archipelago.

Leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) who last year signed a truce with Jakarta, argue the central government has imposed Sharia in a bid to portray GAM as fundamentalists and draw western support for its violent clampdown on insurgents. Other leading Acehnese also argue the move is disingenuous. Afraid to resist its introduction during the conflict, Acehnese are now being bullied into accepting Sharia law, says Fuad Mardhatillah, a Canadian-educated Acehnese expert in Islamic philosophy.

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