Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh

Posted in Broader Middle East | 07-Aug-06 | Source: International Crisis Group

An Acehnese woman kneels on a stage during a public caning in the town of Takengon, central Aceh, in this August 19, 2005 file photo.


Aceh is the only part of Indonesia that has the legal right to apply Islamic law (Shari’a) in full. Since 1999, it has begun slowly to put in place an institutional framework for Shari’a enforcement. In the process, it is addressing hard questions: What aspects should be enforced first? Should existing police, prosecutors and courts be used or new entities created? How should violations be punished? Its efforts to find the answers are being watched closely by other local governments, some of which have enacted regulations inspired by or derived from Shari’a. These moves in turn are sparking a raging debate in Indonesia about what role government at any level should play in encouraging adherence to Islamic law and how far the Islamisation drive will or should be allowed to spread.

This report analyses the reasons usually put forward for why Aceh has been granted the right to apply Shari’a when many other regions have not: that Islam is central to Acehnese identity; that there is a historical precedent there; and that granting Shari’a would help woo an area wracked by insurgency away from separatism and restore trust in the central government. All three assumptions, but particularly the last, came into play when the first post-Soeharto government in 1998 began thinking about a political solution to the Aceh conflict.

Islamic courts in Aceh had long handled cases of marriage, divorce and inheritance. The breakthrough in terms of greater application came after special autonomy legislation was passed in 2001, which gave the courts a green light to extend their reach into criminal justice. It was at this point that serious issues of legal dualism emerged, with no clear line between what the division of labour would be between the regular state courts and Shari’a courts. The question of law enforcement was even murkier: this report looks at the role of the wilayatul hisbah, the “vice and virtue patrol” that Aceh has set up and how its role is gradually expanding much to the unhappiness of the police.

Crisis Group examines the practical problems that have emerged as Aceh tries to enforce the first three Shari’a regulations passed by the district government: criminalising consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages; gambling; and illicit relations between men and women. It looks at how and why the government instituted caning as a punishment for all three, even though there was no precedent for it in Aceh, and the plans for expanding the application of Islamic law.

The report concludes that while the Shari’a officials in Aceh deeply believe that strict enforcement will facilitate broader goals like peace, reconstruction and reconciliation, there are other dynamics at work. The focus on morality seems to have become an end in itself. The religious bureaucracy has a vested interest in its own expansion. The zeal shown by the vice and virtue patrol in enforcing the regulations has encouraged a report-on-your-neighbour process and a kind of moral vigilantism. Women and the poor have become the primary targets of enforcement. There is no indication that implementation of Shari’a is advancing justice for most Acehnese. But for many of its advocates, that may be beside the point. The real issue is whether man’s law or God’s will prevails.

Jakarta/Brussels, 31 July 2006

Asia Report N°117