Marni Soupcoff: Public canings in Indonesia put debates about rights during a pandemic in perspective

The persecution of authoritarian government is even more difficult to crush than the trickiest of viruses

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While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the Western world, sparking debates about how best to balance civil liberties and public health, people around much of the rest of the globe are still dealing with blunt human rights abuses.

In Indonesia’s Aceh province — the one province in the Southeast Asian nation that practices Shariah law — two men were publicly caned in a city park on Thursday. They were flogged across the back a total of 77 times each, with The Associated Press reporting that they winced in pain as they were struck again and again by robed enforcers.

The men were sentenced to receive 80 strokes of the cane, a punishment imposed on them in court in December after they were caught having sex with each other in their own rented room, but they were spared three strokes in recognition of the time they had already spent in prison.

Shariah code classifies gay sex as a morality offence.

The men were sentenced to receive 80 strokes of the cane

The inhumane punishment of public whipping is not uncommon in Aceh. Hundreds of people have been flogged since the province implemented a new Islamic criminal code in 2015, with a long list of victimless actions constituting grounds for caning.

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In July, two women were publicly whipped 100 times each for offering online prostitution, and in fall 2019, a member of the agency that was instrumental in implementing caning laws in Aceh was himself flogged on a public stage for having an affair with a married woman.

Women can be caned for wearing clothing that is considered too tight. Men can be caned for missing prayers. Among other transgressions that are grounds for being brought on to a public stage and brutally whipped are gambling, drinking alcohol, non-marital kissing, and accusing someone of adultery without providing four witnesses. (If you are wondering where those witnesses could conceivably come from, keep in mind that the men who were flogged Thursday were discovered having sex when neighbours reported suspicions to the religious police, who then broke into the couple’s room to check on them.)

Spectators watch a man accused of having gay sex being caned by a member of the Shariah police in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on Jan. 28, 2021. Photo by CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN/AFP via Getty Images

While public caning for a moral crime likely falls under the definition of torture under international law, the bottom line is that Indonesia has already learned that there are few negative consequences for the country for flogging in general, or particularly for flogging gay men.

Rewind to 2017, and what is thought to be the first time Indonesia used public caning as a punishment for homosexuality. While there was an international public outcry then after a young medical student and his male partner were flogged 83 times each for having consensual gay sex (the cheering crowds adding to the horror of the violent spectacle), not much truly happened beyond some stern words from international human rights groups.

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Despite Aceh’s governor apparently being concerned enough about his reputation at the time to consider moving future canings to indoors before a limited audience, there seemed to be no hesitation on the Banda Aceh city administration’s part in carrying out Thursday’s punishment al fresco in front of anyone who cared to watch.

(Not that more intimate canings are much of an improvement. Nor do they represent a more enlightened view. Aceh’s government proposed them to avoid turning off potential investors.)

Indonesia has already learned that there are few negative consequences

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has called for an end to public caning, but this is an empty gesture — he has never challenged the regulations — rendered all the less comforting by the fact that there is wide support for the practice locally in Aceh.

While we are busy here having legitimate discussions about what, if any, personal liberties should be sacrificed towards the goal of limiting the spread of an infectious disease, the canings in Aceh should serve as a reminder that protection from outright government violence is a luxury not to be taken for granted.

Unfortunately, the fact that we are dealing with a health and economic crisis does not mean that the more mundane horrors of abuse and persecution that are a part of everyday life in many parts of the world have been put on hold.

But what can we do? We are a little too busy dealing with COVID-19 in our own midst, right now, to take on degrading and damaging Indonesian laws. Still, we can maintain a sense of perspective about what is important by keeping tabs on the non-COVID suffering that preceded the pandemic and that will surely outlast it.

The persecution of authoritarian government is even more difficult to crush than the trickiest of viruses. Aceh helps us not forget it.

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