Sunday, November 8, 2009

Aceh's Morality Police on the Prowl for Violators

The only Indonesian province with Sharia, or Islamic law, has a 1,500-member force whose job is to go after women not properly covered and couples engaging in public displays of affection.

The young couple are totally busted. They sit at a beach-side park, near signs forbidding teens from sitting too close. He has his arm around her shoulder. She isn't wearing her jilbab, the traditional Islamic head scarf.

Just like that, the morality cops are in their face.

He separates the two and confiscates their IDs. Later, he says, the team will open an investigation of the couple, especially seeing as the young man lied, at first insisting the girl was his sister.

The team is known as "the vice and virtue patrol," on the beat in Aceh, the only province in the world's most populous Muslim nation to employ Sharia, or Islamic law, for its criminal code. The laws were introduced in 2002 after the Indonesian region was granted autonomy as part of efforts to end a decades-long guerrilla war. The Sharia police consider themselves the community's public conscience. And on their weekly patrol, they take seriously their role of enforcing the religious strictures.

Now their mission may become deadly serious.

In September, Aceh's provincial parliament passed a law saying married people who commit adultery can be sentenced to death by stoning. It also toughened laws on public caning, adding more lashes for gays, pedophiles and gamblers.

The new law, which still requires the approval of the provincial governor, has outraged human rights groups here, who say the code unfairly targets women and violates international treaties. They say the law cuts even deeper into private lives. Under the guidelines, the Sharia police could even raid hotel rooms in search of violators, develop informants and work undercover.

Many of Indonesia's 200 million Muslims are moderates. Some worry that the law will discourage much-needed foreign investment in a province leveled by the 2004 tsunami. But the religious thought police know they cannot fight television, the racy shows broadcast from Malaysia and Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

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