The gay community in Indonesia was dealt another blow after a court in the sharia-ruled province of Aceh sentenced a gay couple to 85 strokes of the cane, in the first such case in the country.
Sexual minorities in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country are already on the defensive following last year’s barrage of anti-gay rhetoric and actions by officials.
“This is a sad day for the LGBT community,” said Yuli Rustinawati, spokeswoman for Arus Pelangi, a group that advocates for the country’s lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT).
“It is ironic because today we are celebrating International Day Against Homophobia,” she said.
Sexual minorities and rights activists feared the worst after Aceh’s parliament issued a new set of Islamic laws, known as qanun jinayat, regulating private morality in 2014. The laws took effect in October 2015.
Under the law, sex out of wedlock and same-sex sexual acts are punishable by 100 lashes of the cane, or 100 months in prison.
The previous laws banned gambling, alcohol and being alone with someone of the opposite sex while unmarried, but did not specifically regulate sexual acts.
“Qanun jinayat that is used to convict [the gay couple] is discriminatory and the punishment meted out is especially harsh,” said Adreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“Their rigths were also violated because they were mistreated during their arrest,” he said.
Local vigilantes barged into the couple’s rented room in the city of Banda Aceh and handed them over to sharia police.
A video posted on YouTube showed a visibly distressed naked man surrounded by angry locals.
Many homosexuals have left Aceh since the introduction of the laws, Harsono said.
Transgender people in Aceh had very few job opportunities, forcing many of them to resort to working as hairdressers at salons.
But even as hairdressers, they are banned from serving female customers.
The once-rebellious Aceh has long been known as a staunchly Muslim
region and is nicknamed “The Veranda of Mecca.”
The central government granted Aceh special autonomy in 2002 to
mollify desires for independence, allowing the province to impose its version of sharia laws.
Jakarta 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 mayor of provincial capital Banda Aceh, Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, has referred to the growing visibility of gays and lesbians as a “moral tsunami.”
She said her government has formed a special team to provide counselling for homosexual people.
In the rest of Indonesia, consensual sex between people of the same sex is not a crime, but hostility toward homosexuals has been growing.
Early last year, Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir warned of pro-LGBT activities on university campuses and banned such groups.
Last month, police in Indonesia’s second largest city Surabaya raided hotel rooms and detained eight men for participating in a “gay sex party.”
The government has sought to block gay-friendly mobile apps that it says promote “sexual deviance” and has also asked social networking services to remove emoticons from the Indonesian market which depict same-sex couples.
Arus Pelangi, the LGBT group, said it recorded more than 150 incidents of discrimination, harassment and attacks against LGBT people last year.
The government has also blocked international funding for organizations working to help sexual minorities, said Harsono of Human Rights Watch.
The Constitutional Court is considering a case filed by a group of conservative academics that seeks to criminalize consensual gay sex among adults, with proposed penalties of up to five years in prison. No verdict on the petition had been passed.
“Things are getting worse and worse for LGBT people,” said Harsono.
“I’m at loss for words about the inhumanity.”