Indonesia's 'Vice And Virtue' Police

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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - It's 8 p.m. in Banda Aceh. CBN News joins the Shari'a police, known locally as the 'vice and virtue' patrol, as they begin their evening rounds. It doesn't take long to spot the first target - a man and woman alone in the park.

The Shari'a police scold the couple for being seen together in the dark, but release them after learning that the man is a military officer.

The soldier is given special favor, but another couple is detained longer. The female is taken aside and reprimanded for not wearing a jilbab, or headdress.

The woman explains she is unaware of the law because she is not from Aceh. The Shari'a police say visitors to Aceh must abide by Aceh laws.

Scenes like this are now part of the daily lives of the Acehnese.

Shari'a or Islamic law is part of the special autonomy agreement that ended the long separatist insurgency in Aceh.

While Indonesia is a Muslim country, Aceh is the only Indonesian province allowed to apply Shari'a.

Among the Shari'a regulations enforced by the Shari'a police are bans against the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages, gambling, and illicit relations between men and women. Even married couples can be prosecuted for holding hands in public.

Public flogging is the punishment given to anyone found guilty.

While human rights groups say such punishment is unjust, Muslim Ibrahim, chairman of the shari'a regulatory board says flogging is more humane than imprisonment.

Muslim Ibrahim, chairman of the Ulemas Assembly, said, "When a person is imprisoned, he is separated from his family for a long time and this can cause more problems. With public flogging, he or she can get nine to 20 whips but it is not really the pain but the shame that the offender needs to face. The shame will be so hard to bear that this will stop them from doing the offense again."

Because of the shame and pain, many women pass out during the ordeal. Since last year, the Shari'a board has handled 60 cases, mostly on sexual relations outside marriage.

I need to cover my head so as not to attract the attention of the Shari'a police.

But what a strange coincidence that only a day after we interviewed the authority on Shari'a law, we read an article on the front page of a local newspaper warning the Acehnese against saying anything negative about Shari'a law and its implementation.

But despite these warnings, the people here can't help but express their true sentiments.

Ibu Merianti is a Muslim who supports Shari'a law, but she is concerned about how it is enforced. We have hidden her identity for security reasons.

Merianti said, "I think the implementation is unfair because the Shari'a police only target the poor. The rich and those in authority get away with the crime. We should also realize that Shari'a is more than just a rule. I follow Shari'a from my heart, and not because I am afraid of the Shari'a police."

Nita, whose identity we have also hidden, is a teacher. She believes Islamic law may be a hindrance to the progress of Aceh.

"Particularly in the education of the children because they memorize what is in the Qur'an and memorize prayers and that's enough for them," Nita said. "It seems they don't need to learn about current events and general knowledge, and that's a hindrance for the new generation to help in the progress of Aceh."

During an exclusive television interview with cbn News, the newly-elected governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, criticized the present implementation of Shari'a law and some of its provisions.

Governor Yusuf said, "I don't like the punishment. I do not agree with what's being implemented right now. Education is a way to achieve what we want and how the morality is to be practiced here."

Yusuf earned a master's degree in veterinary medicine at Oregon State University in 1993. He says his experience in the United States will affect the way he governs in Aceh.

"Good governance and clean government that is what I can copy from America," he said, "how they serve their citizens and how they protect their citizens."

And while the new governor would like to see the Acehnese people protected from extreme punishment, the Shari'a police patrols are not expected to end any time soon.

In fact, Islamic leaders here are now pushing to implement a fourth Shari'a regulation: the amputation of hands of those caught stealing.

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Lucille Talusan and Gary Lane

Lucille Talusan and Gary Lane

Christian World News

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