Punks become latest victim of Aceh's abusive Shariah laws

A group of music lovers organising a charity concert in Indonesia’s northernmost province of Aceh are the latest victims of the province’s discriminatory and abusive sharia laws. The 64 youths were released on December 23 after undergoing 10 days of “moral rehabilitation” in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Despite being detained illegally for two weeks, none were charged with a crime or brought before a court.

The youths — some of whom had come from as far as Jakarta and West Java — were arrested on the evening of December 10 as they held a charity concert titled “Aceh for the Punk” at the city cultural centre, Taman Budaya, to raise money for orphans.


Regular and Wilayatul Hisbah (sharia) police stormed the venue, rounding up anyone sporting mohawks, tattoos, tight jeans or chains. Several were assaulted in the raid. After being held for three nights by local police — during which they were denied access to legal representation and family members — they were transferred to the Aceh State Police School for “re-education”.

“There will be a traditional ceremony. First their hair will be cut. Then they will be tossed into a pool. The women’s hair we’ll cut in the fashion of a female police officer”, said Aceh police chief Inspector General Iskandar Hasan. “Then we’ll teach them a lesson.” True to his word, upon arrival at the camp, the punks were forced to have their hair cut, bathe in a lake, change clothes and pray. Men’s heads were shaved, while the women’s hair was cut short, according to an AFP correspondent at the camp.

Twenty-year-old Juanda, who has been a member of the Rebel’s Dam punk community since 2008 and managed to escape by wearing a helmet to hide his punk hairstyle, said that they “were beaten up like animals” during the raid. “It broke my heart to see how my friends were beaten up like that. I could not do anything to help because the officers were armed and they moved really fast. They pulled my friends’ hair and dragged them”, he told the Globe. He added that officials and the Wilayatul Hisbah are hunting down those who avoided arrest.

Crusade

Banda Aceh deputy mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal — who describes punks as a “new social disease” — defended the arrests and her ongoing crusade against the punk community, proudly relating how she has supervised police raids at cafes and city parks in recent months. “The concert would have been an abomination to Islamic teaching, and they also committed a permit violation”, she told the Globe, claiming they had falsely said in their permit request that it was a charity concert. Djamal was unable to say how or if the authorities had been able to prove it was not a charity event. “This group threatens faith and deviates very widely from Islamic teachings, which is why we had to break up the concert”, she said.

According to Djamal, public places such as Taman Sari and the Tsunami Museum were becoming unattractive because young people don’t bathe regularly and dress shabbily. “Their morals are wrong. Men and women gather together, and that is against Islamic sharia”, she said. “We will keep conducting raids until they’re all caught, then we’ll bring them for re-education here.”

Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf — a former leader of the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which waged a three-decade guerrilla war against Indonesian rule — also defended the raid, insisting that it demonstrated the government’s concern for the youths. “It was no charity concert for orphans”, he told journalists at the State Palace on December 20. “It is untrue that the police arrested them. That’s not it. The truth is that the police are helping them develop [skills].”

Yusuf said that there are around 700 punks in Aceh, most of whom lived in parks or on the side of roads, have no jobs, don’t go to school, do not pray and refuse to go home. He dismissed widespread international criticism.

Moral conservative groups, which back strict sharia law in Aceh and have been pushing for its application in other parts of the country, also supported the authorities. The secretary of the Aceh Ulama Association, Faisal Ali, was quoted by the state news agency Antara as saying: “We call on the local government to issue a qanun [by-law] that would ban punk communities in Aceh.”

The Aceh Association for Imams (religious leaders) chairperson, Tarmizi Rasyid, even suggested that the detention period be extended to three months. Also backing the raid was the notorious Islamic Defenders Front — best known for vandalising Jakarta nightspots that fail to pay police protection money on time.

‘Punk will never die’

Several days into the “re-education”, a clerical delegation visited the camp and delivered a religious lecture to the youths. At prayer time, police forced the detainees to wear traditional Muslim dress and drove them in trucks to a nearby mosque.

But according to the December 17 Jakarta Globe, there was little sign of mass conversion to religious piety. “Punk’s not dead!” shouted 18-year-old Andre after being forced onto the truck for the trip back to the camp. “I’ll still be a punk when they let me go, because it’s my chosen life”, he said. One of the female detainees, 20-year-old Intan Natalia, emphasised the creative spirit of the punk community. “Punks are not about criminality”, she said. “Don’t look at us from a negative perspective, because we work, too. We create unique tattoos, T-shirt designs and piercings.”

On December 20 the Associated Press also reported that efforts to restore moral values by having the “deviants” march military-style for hours beneath the tropical sun weren’t working, and the punks were showing no signs of bending. When camp commanders turned their backs, the shouts rang out: “Punk will never die!” A few managed briefly to escape, heads held high as they were dragged back.

Condemnation

Human rights groups condemned the arrests. Aceh Human Rights Coalition executive director Evi Narti Zain said the police actions were violent and illegal. Aceh Legal Aid Foundation director Hospinovizal Sabri said they were working to get the youths released since they had broken no laws.

M. Choirul Anam from the Indonesian rights group Imparsial said the police violated the youths’ freedom of expression, treated them in an inhuman manner in contravention of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment — which Indonesia signed in 1985 — and denied the youths proper legal treatment. “The police executed punishment against them without going through any legal channels. There will be more human rights violations if we don’t process this case legally”, he told the December 19 Jakarta Post.

Ahmad Suaedy, executive director of the Wahid Institute, an NGO promoting pluralism, said that the sharia police’s methods were not in accordance with Islamic values.

National Commission for Child Protection chairperson Arist Merdeka Sirait — who scoffed at Djamal’s claim that punk is a “social disease” — slammed the detention without charge, the head shaving, the dousing ritual and the military-style treatment as a breach of human rights. “Is there a clause in the criminal code that makes self-expression in the punk style a crime? Then show me! This is too much”, he said in Jakarta on December 16.

International outrage

The incident sparked outraged from local and international punk rock communities, many of which responded with solidarity campaigns. Scores of “punkers” held a solidarity action at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in Central Jakarta on December 17 in which they cut their hair in mohawk style in solidarity with the Aceh punks. They called on police to arrest corrupt Acehnese government officials instead of innocent punks.

On December 19 a group called Solidarity for Aceh Punks United rallied in front of the national police headquarters in South Jakarta. “The existence of punks is not why public order is disrupted, but rather it is the rotten state system that creates an unfavourable atmosphere of order”, said one of the speakers.

Hundreds of punks held a solidarity action in Yogyakarta on December 22. In speeches they said the arrests were a human rights violation and called on police to stop using violence. The Jakarta-based collective Bendera Hitam (Black Flag) said it was organising a solidarity event for the Aceh punks and would rally at the Aceh representative’s office in Jakarta to demand their release.

On December 15 a group of anarchist punks in Moscow released a video on YouTube showing them defacing the Indonesian embassy in Moscow in a show of support for the Aceh punks. In the video the group can be seen spray painting a wall with slogans in Russian reading “Religion=Fascism” and “Punk is not a crime”.

Around 20 people also staged a protest in front of the Indonesian consulate general in San Francisco on December 19. A Seattle-based metal and punk label, Aborted Society, initiated the “Mixtape for Aceh” project on its web site on December 14, which calls on punk music fans to create cassette and CD compilations of punk music that the label would ship to punk fans in Aceh by early January.

A Swedish Facebook event, “Support Indonesian Punks”, calling on punks worldwide to post pictures of themselves in full punk attire, had 4500 people signed up by December 16. Aside from encouraging people to send letters of protest to their local Indonesian embassy, Swedish punks also plan to hold a tribute concert.

Sharia law

This is not the first time punks have been targeted by Aceh’s sharia police. In February a group of youths were arrested and held for religious indoctrination. Police claimed they were a public nuisance and accused them of being involved in theft, brawls, attacks and assaults. Despite being detained for 10 days, none were ever charged with a crime.

During a protest action against the February arrests, demonstrators said that Banda Aceh was home to more than 100 members of at least five different punk communities and they had been in Banda Aceh “forever”. They had become targets only after sharia law began to be widely enforced in the last few years.

Aceh is located on the northern tip of Sumatra astride the Malacca Straits, and was one of the first parts of the archipelago to come into contact with Muslim traders from present-day India and the Arabian peninsula. Aceh adopted partial sharia law in 2001 as part of a special autonomy package introduced by the government of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The move was widely seen as an attempt to win support from Aceh’s religious elite to counter the rising tide of separatism.

Following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the province in 2004, and the Helsinki peace agreement signed between GAM and Jakarta in 2005, GAM leaders initially indicated that they would repeal sharia law. But after transforming themselves into the Aceh Party and winning a landslide victory in the 2009 elections, the new Aceh government quietly dropped the issue and has since tacitly supported the spread of such laws. Observers say this is in return for support from Aceh’s conservative religious leaders and political parties in the face of rising discontent over widespread corruption, unemployment and poverty.

While initially there appeared to be a degree of public support for such laws, many Acehnese soon discovered that it was only the “little people” who fell foul of the law — usually for petty offences such as gambling or consuming alcohol — while it was rarely applied to wealthy or politically connected individuals or corrupt officials.

Acehnese women’s organisations and human rights groups have campaigned sporadically against the laws but restricted themselves to lobbying and failed to or have been unwilling to build any mass campaign to tap into popular resentment against the laws.

Government complicity

The central government  has remained silent on the whole affair, with the exception of social affairs minister Salim Segaf al-Juffrie, who lamely reminded police to use persuasion when dealing with minors. This is hardly surprising, since the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been complicit in legislation that discriminates against religious minorities.

In 2005 Indonesia’s top religious body, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) issued an edict against the Muslim religious sect Ahmadiyah, calling its teachings blasphemous. That year Yudhoyono said his administration would “embrace the views, recommendations and edicts of the MUI”. In 2008 the government enacted a decree requiring Ahmadiyah to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam”. Persecution and violence against Ahmadis rose dramatically following the 2005 edict and 2008 degree, including even murders of members of the Ahmadiyah community. At least 20 regional regulations restricting Ahmadiyah’s activities were issued in 2011. Not only has the government failed to annul these, but on several occasions the religious affairs minister, the justice and human rights minister and the attorney general’s office have publicly backed the regulations or called for Ahmadiyah to be outlawed.

Discrimination is also legitimised by the 1965 blasphemy law, which recognises only Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. Other religions are officially banned. A 2006 decree sets stringent requirements on the establishment of places of worship, which Muslim groups frequently use to close churches.

Scores of sharia-based by-laws have been enacted by regional administrations. The National Commission on Violence Against Women says there were 154 discriminatory by-laws against women enacted in 2009 and an additional 35 by September 2010.

Policing morality

The Yudhoyono government and his Democrat Party’s fractious ruling coalition depends primarily upon the support of the Golkar Party – the political vehicle of the Suharto dictatorship’s New Order regime – and a cabal of Islamic-based parties, including the conservative United Development Party and the Justice and Prosperity Party, both of which have been pushing for an expansion of sharia-based laws. Although rarely expressed openly for fear of alienating broader layers of the public, both seek the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

With public dissatisfaction against the government consistently polling at around 70-80 percent and rising voter apathy and abstention in regional elections, almost all the political parties – nationalist and Islamic alike – are pandering to the Islamist and moral-conservative vote to prop up flagging electoral support. Political parties across the spectrum have pledged to pass sharia-based bylaws, place restrictions on places of worship or ban “deviant” religious sects in exchange for votes.

Two sharia laws in particular violate rights and are often enforced abusively: those prohibiting “seclusion” and imposing public dress requirements. The laws are among five shariah-based criminal laws adopted in Aceh covering charitable donations, gambling, Islamic rituals and proper Muslim behavior.

The “seclusion” law makes association by unmarried individuals of the opposite sex a criminal offence. Sharia police officers interpret the vaguely worded law to prohibit merely sitting and talking in a “quiet” space with a member of the opposite sex to whom one is not married or related — regardless of whether there is evidence of intimacy.

Serious abuses by the police include aggressive interrogation, conditioning the release of suspects upon their agreement to marry and, in one case, the rape of a woman by sharia police while in detention. Sharia police admit that they sometimes force women and girls to submit to virginity exams as part of an investigation.

The laws also allow individuals to identify, apprehend and punish suspected violators on their own initiative. This has led to suspects being assaulted, beaten and burned with lit cigarettes. Abusers have not been held accountable for these offences, while the accused have faced forced marriage, expulsion from their villages and arbitrary fines — all determined by traditional leaders with no due process.

Women constitute the overwhelming majority of those who fall victim to the law on Islamic attire. While the law requires men to wear clothing that covers the body from the knee to the navel, it requires Muslim women to cover the entire body, except for hands, feet and face, meaning that they are obligated to wear the jilbab (Islamic headscarf).

In interviews, women stopped by the sharia police during patrols or roadblocks to monitor dress code compliance said police recorded their personal details, lectured them and threatened them with detention or lashing if they repeated the offence.

No homeless, only punks

In an interview with the Jakarta Globe on December 22, police chief Iskandar Hasan again claimed that the charity concert was a falsification and insisted that police were putting a halt to a “public nuisance” and “filthy unhealthy lifestyles”. Contradicting media reports, he said detainees were “just happy because it has been a long time since they have had a bath” and they were “enthusiastic” about their re-education.

When asked why, if the police are so concerned with punks being dirty, they don’t round up other homeless people in Aceh, Hasan replied, “There are no homeless in Aceh, there are only punks”.

Hasan concluded the interview by “thanking God” that police received strong support from the community, including 21 Islamic organisations. “Although I also received around 50 MS messages containing profanity and obscenities. We are the servants for society”, he said.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia and Aceh visit the Asia Pacific Solidarity Network website.]