For first time in Indonesia, non-Muslim caned under Islamic law

A 60-year-old Christian woman convicted of selling alcohol was given a choice for her punishment: jail time or caning.

She chose caning, and in doing so last week became the first non-Muslim in Indonesia to receive the punishment under sharia law.

Remita Sinaga, a Protestant, received 28 lashes from a rattan cane Tuesday in the town of Takengon in Aceh province.

Pictures posted online show Sinaga standing in a purple head scarf, her head downcast; beside her a person veiled in black extends the cane, as if preparing to administer a blow. A few onlookers watch in the background.

Sinaga was found guilty by a Central Aceh Islamic court of selling alcohol, after police seized 50 bottles of alcoholic beverages from her stall. Sinaga had been given a sentence of 30 lashes, but it was reduced to take into account time she spent in detention.

The head of Aceh’s Sharia Department, Syahrizal Abbas, said qanun jinayat — an Islamic criminal code in place in Aceh — is reserved only for Muslims, but non-Muslims could choose to submit to it if they desire.

“The woman voluntarily submitted to the punishment because she thought the alternative was worse: a jail time under the national law,” Abbas said in a phone interview Friday. “She didn’t want to spend time in prison because we’re all aware that prison conditions are bad and there’s little welfare there.”

In 2015, the Indonesian government banned sales of alcohol in small shops.

The central government granted Aceh, a devoutly Muslim province of 4.7 million people, special autonomy in 2002 to mollify desires for independence, allowing the province to impose its version of sharia, or Islamic law.

The Indonesian government and separatist rebels signed a peace pact in 2005, ending decades of conflict that killed 15,000 people, mostly civilians. The deal was spurred by the Indian Ocean tsunami a year earlier that killed more than 170,000 people in Aceh.

The new Islamic criminal code was passed in 2014 to replace a more limited collection of Islamic bylaws, but only came into force in on Oct. 10, 2015, following a yearlong public information campaign.

Under the code, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by 100 lashes of the cane, or 100 months in prison. Consuming or selling alcohol is punishable by up to 40 lashes, gambling 12 lashes, and mixing between the opposite sexes while unmarried 12 lashes.

Officials have insisted that the punishment is not intended to hurt offenders physically, but to humiliate them to deter them from committing similar offenses in the future.

Canings are usually done in a public square in the presence of hundreds of onlookers and officials.

Haris Azhar, coordinator for the Kontras human rights group, said the application of sharia in the case of a non-Muslim set a “bad precedent.”

“Caning itself is inhuman and a form of torture, and this form of punishment should never be implemented anywhere in Indonesia,” he said.

“From the non-Muslim perspective, it’s something frightening,” he added. “It will only damage the image of Muslim society.”