Everyone in the village saw it, either in the flesh or later when it was immortalised on YouTube. Local children even stuck their heads through the grates of a fence to watch, their attention trained on the spectacle in front of them: a young couple being doused in sewage. Humiliated but compliant, the couple sat on the edge of a well in Kayee Lee, a village in the Indonesian province of Aceh, as the liquid ran off them in thick black streams. By the time Roswati arrived at the scene, about 70 people had gathered to watch her son and his girlfriend being publicly shamed in the courtyard of the mosque, the village equivalent of the public square.
“They were standing there looking at them like thieves,” says Roswati of the local youths involved. “I asked them, ‘Why did you do this,’ and they said, ‘Wait till we burn your house down.’ Roswati and her husband, both rice farmers, had been visiting friends in a nearby village, leaving their son, 24-year-old Maulizan, and his girlfriend Shirley, 19, at home alone. In the sharia-ruled province of Aceh, that is a criminal offence. Known as khalwat, or the “seclusion” or “indecency” law, in Aceh it is prohibited for two mature people, not married or blood-related, to be together alone in an isolated place. The offence is punishable by caning and a fine of up to 10m rupiah (£508).
But Maulizan and Shirley weren’t arrested and charged by Aceh’s sharia police. Instead, it was a posse of young men from the village that burst into the house, demanded to see their IDs and then forced them down the dusty village road to the mosque. In March there were four such cases in the provincial capital and surrounds alone, where ordinary Acehnese took it upon themselves to play judge and jury, raiding, arresting and shaming people who had allegedly violated Aceh’s militant moral laws.
A few unmarried couples, two university students suspected of being gay, and a transgender woman accused of soliciting for sex, were all rounded up – not by known vigilantes but ordinary residents, before they were eventually handed over to the sharia police. Five are still in custody pending trial at the religious courts. Based on a special autonomy agreement, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia
that can legally adopt sharia bylaws. Formalised in 2014, its criminal code outlaws alcohol, adultery, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and gambling, and regulates what women can wear. Last year the province attracted international condemnation after two gay men were flogged, 83 times, for having sex. The effect of the punishment, the first in Aceh’s history, rippled through the province. The public spectacle attracted thousands and included sermons by religious scholars on the dangers of homosexuality, reinforcing already deeply entrenched homophobia.
Kamal Fasya, an anthropologist from Aceh’s Malikussaleh University, said of the recent vigilantism: “It has happened again and again. Young people, especially uneducated young people such as in Kayee Lee, shaming them, hitting them in public. “It’s like an infection,” he adds. “It’s contagious.”
In several cases this March it was young Acehnese men, some as young as 15, who carried out the attacks with the backing of their village chiefs. Not once were they themselves reprimanded or arrested. In another case the attack was unplanned. On 12 March, a man delivering water to a beauty salon claimed he caught its transgender owner having sex with a man. He called in the mechanic next door and together they restrained the couple, confiscating the keys for their motorbikes so they couldn’t escape, and called the police… read more: