Aceh’s Sharia Police Get Extended Powers


In line with laws passed in December that extended the Aceh Sharia Police’s power to detain suspects, local authorities in Indonesia’s semi-autonomous region have recently been preparing detention centers to process those who violate provincial religious codes. Zulkarnain, head of the Sharia Police, or Wilayatul Hisbah (Wi-Ha) as they are known, told The Jakarta Globe on Wednesday that he hoped these centers would soon be prepared “in all 23 districts and towns across Aceh.”

The Wi-Ha are a familiar presence in Indonesia’s northernmost region. Following the Special Autonomy Law in 2001, Aceh’s provincial legislature enacted a series of qanun, or local laws, governing the implementation of Sharia. Since then, the enforcement of these qanun has largely been carried out by the Wi-Ha, who have functioned alongside the national police force for over a decade.

Although the extent of the Wi-Ha’s legal authority during its history has, at times, seemed less than clear to members of the public, legislative developments over the past five years point towards an extension of jurisdiction, as well as a general increase in the number of Sharia-related offences being introduced. Decreed punishments for such violations also seem to have grown more severe, although their implementation is, in many cases, not carried out.

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In April 2009, two new and controversial qanun were passed, reiterating existing Sharia prohibitions, enhancing some penalties, and introducing an array of new offences. The new laws authorized punishments that included up to 60 lashes for “intimacy,” up to 100 for engaging in homosexual conduct, and death by stoning for marital adultery.

These laws still stand today and, with the new Qanun Jinayat passed on December 13 last year, the Wi-Ha have new powers with which to enforce them. Previously, the Wi-Ha could only search and detain suspects briefly. After having been “educated” about Sharia principles, a process notoriously vague in its phrasing, perceived offenders had to be released if the official police had not been involved. Now, the Wi-Ha can detain suspects for up to 30 days prior to a legal trial. This period can then be extended for a further 30 days should the awaited trial be delayed. Zulkarnain has also indicated that those awaiting trial could be transferred to regular jails should the detention centers become overcrowded.

What is the significance of these new developments? The general implementation of Sharia is not necessarily controversial for many Acehnese. Despite anger voiced by some of the younger generation at recent restrictions on clothing and public intimacy between unmarried couples, and despite some viewing the Wi-Ha as a public nuisance, many individuals support the religious principles that underlie Aceh’s strict legislature. However, international observers and human rights groups in the past have pointed towards the scope for abuse and selective implementation that these laws can afford.

A year after the two controversial qanun of 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report condemning the manner in which the Wi-Ha had been enforcing this legislation, stating:

“Human Rights Watch takes no position on Sharia law per se, which supporters say is a complete system of guidance on all matters in life, or on the provisions that regulate the internal workings of Islam. However, the two laws singled out in the report are applied abusively and violate both Indonesian constitutional protections and international human rights law.”

The report also contained testimony from “suspects” who had undergone physical and sexual abuse from Wi-Ha officials, as well as attacks from members of the local community upholding and encouraged by the 2009 codes. One female even claimed to have been raped by the Sharia police who arrested her before being released the next morning.

Given the criticism and human rights concerns surrounding the Sharia laws of 2009, some observers and residents may regard Wi-Ha’s recent extension of power with trepidation. On Tuesday, on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, a Wi-Ha raid cracking down on dress-code violations briefly detained 59 people. Zulkarnain said they included 54 women found to be wearing “tight shirts” in public and five men in shorts, adding:

“They were only advised not to repeat their offence and were told that in future, if they’re caught again in another raid, they face the possibility of being taken into custody.”

Although these suspects escaped prolonged detention, the gender imbalance shown in this single incident suggests that women may well find themselves disproportionately affected by the December ruling. Human Rights Watch said that their 2010 report “details evidence that the laws are selectively enforced – rarely if ever applied to wealthy or politically-connected individuals.” It seems being male may also help one escape time in a new Wi-Ha detention center.

Rob Yates is a writer based in North Sumatra.

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