MOHD Nasir was elected the head of Lhok Bani village in Langsa only 10 months ago – and already he is facing what he describes as “the biggest test of my life.”
Two weeks ago, a group of youths on their way home after watching a late night football match became suspicious when they neared the home of Yus, a 25-year-old divorcee and a single mother of two.
Believing she was having an illicit relationship – which is strictly forbidden in Muslim-majority Aceh under its syariah law – the young vigilantes stormed in.
When they found a man hiding in the cupboard, they tied him up, locked him in the cupboard, and then allegedly took turns to rape Yus.
As dawn broke and Mohd Nasir got ready for the subuh prayers, he received quite a shock when the bunch of youths came and handed him the bedraggled couple, saying they had caught the duo committing adultery.
They had thrown water and heaped dirt and sewage on the two before bringing them to the village head.
Mohd Nasir says Yus was in her nightwear and the man she was caught with was a stranger to him.
“To say I was in shock is to put it mildly. My mind was in chaos and all over the place. I have not been in the post more than 10 months and such a thing happens,” he says.
Mohd Nasir, who declined to be photographed, says he called the local Wilayahtul Hisbah (WH), the syariah police, who quickly took the couple away.
But there was another shock awaiting Mohd Nasir.
Two days later, the police came calling, saying that eight youths from the village had allegedly raped Yus that morning after they caught her alone with the man in her house.
“I was horrified to hear this. The boys are only 19- and 20-year-olds and there is also a 13-year-old. They didn’t say anything about this when they brought her to me.”
Three of the youths were detained by police. The other five have fled.
Mohd Nasir says the families of the eight youths are now stressed and traumatised.
“Rape is far more serious than adultery,” he says, adding that the boys are educated and should be able to tell right from wrong.
As village head, Mohd Nasir says, he feels sorry for both Yus and the youths.
“I don’t know why these young people didn’t come to us older folks immediately when they found the couple because then there would probably not have been a rape!”
One of Yus’ close relatives in the village who does not want to be named for fear she would be called to testify in court has mixed feelings over what happened.
“I don’t think Yus can ever come back and live here again. We are angry with her. She has no more friends in the village,” she says.
But after a while, she cools down enough to say how she really feels about the alleged gang rape.
“I hear there are actually 10 who raped her and they are just boys and still wet behind the ears!
“Yus couldn’t even shout for help because they covered her mouth and threatened her. I feel so sad when I think of how much pain she must have suffered being gang-raped,” says the relative who lives just metres from Yus’ house but slept through the incident.
“What is even sadder is that the boys who did it are people we know. They are our neighbours and some are even relatives,” she says.
Aceh has two legal systems.
One is the Indonesian Penal Code which is used throughout the country and covers criminal acts including murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping and other serious crimes. These are heard in civil courts and carry jail sentences upon conviction.
The second legal system is unique to Aceh – Qanun Jinayat, a syariah-based code and law.
But this covers only three key offences namely gambling, drinking alcohol, and khalwat or/and zina (close proximity and adultery).
Offenders are caught by WH (pronounced “wee ha” for short) or by self-appointed vigilantes who hand offenders over to the syariah police.
The case is then heard in a Syariah Court and punishments meted out consist of fines and public caning. There is no jail sentence.
The Syariah Law has recently been beefed up, given more teeth and broadened to include non-Muslims, but this is controversial and has yet to be implemented.
The syariah police also regularly haul up and reprimand people for other “morality offences” like women wearing tight clothes or trousers and not covering their hair, men for wearing shorts that expose the knees, not attending Friday prayers or eating or selling food during Ramadan; male youths for sporting punk hair-styles or long hair, torn jeans, or wearing earrings. Schoolchildren playing truant are not spared either.
In one or two provinces in Aceh, women are not allowed to wear trousers (because it is seen as male attire) or to sit astride on a motorbike because this is deemed indecent. So they have to sit side-saddle when riding pillion.
In the case of Yus, the Langsa Syariah Police head, Ibrahim Latif, announced very early on that she and her male companion Wah (a 40-year-old married man) would be publicly caned because they had confessed to adultery.
But this has raised an outcry. An alleged rape victim may be further humiliated by being publicly caned for adultery.
Kuala Syiah lecturer of law, social science and politics Saifuddin Bantasyam, however, points out that people must understand that there are two laws systems at work here, and that the rape will be investigated under the Indonesian Penal Code while the adultery will be dealt with under the Acehnese Qanun Jinayat.
So, he says headlines such as “Woman Raped by Eight Men Will be Caned by the Syariah Police”, as carried by some international media on the case, were “provocative” and not accurate because both offences are being dealt with separately through the two different legal systems.
“But I criticise the Langsa government for being very reactive in dealing with the caning of the woman. There is no need for them to disclose to the media so early that the woman would be caned,” he says, adding that on the flip side, the authorities are not seen to be dealing with the gang rape issue as quickly.
“This is making people question the judgment of the (Langsa) government,” he says.
He notes that when the story of the gang rape broke out, there was a flurry and the police arrested three.
“But now it’s gone quiet. We are not reading anything more about the other five who are on the run.”
The concerns of rape cases going cold is real.
Aris, 30, from Langsa should know. He is still sore that one of his university mates, Nora, a law student who was raped by the syariah police in January 2010, has still not received justice.
Nora and her boyfriend were riding on a motorbike when they were stopped by the syariah police.
The syariah police detained Nora and asked her boyfriend for money to secure her release. While he went to get the money, the two syariah policemen raped her.
Aris, an active student leader, says they organised protests and demonstrations against the syariah police in Langsa and called for the head to step down and the two syariah police involved to be arrested and charged.
Nora’s life changed forever, he says.
“She dropped out of university after the rape. She was ashamed because the whole of Aceh heard about her case.
“She wouldn’t take my calls. She’s gone off somewhere and disappeared.”
As for the two syariah policemen who raped her, Aris says they ran away.
“It’s been four years and we don’t know what has happened with the case.”
After Nora’s case, the syariah police in Langsa eased up on their operations for two years or so and the chief was removed. But now they have become active again.
Langsa is only 171km from Medan in Sumatra compared to 436km from Banda Aceh and the religious authorities here worry that because of this proximity, people in Langsa might be influenced by the free and liberal lifestyle in Medan which is not governed by syariah rules.
Recently, the syariah police in Langsa shut down family karaokes at coffee shops. Families are also not allowed to go to the beach.
“We are hungry for entertainment,” says Aris’ friend Cheded who plays the guitar but finds he has no place to perform any more with his band friends.
So Cheded and his friends head to Medan twice a month just for some music, massage and entertainment, spending at least one million Indonesian rupiah (RM284) on fuel and hotel a night for each trip they make. Many in Langsa also do this.
“Isn’t this an outflow of money from Aceh?” asks Cheded who works in a bank.
Then there’s the tragic story of Putri, a 16-year-old.
She was out late at night with a group of friends in an open and public area in Langsa on Sept 3 last year when the syariah police took her.
The following day, a local newspaper ran a story saying the syariah police had picked up a prostitute and published Putri’s name.
Humiliated, Putri hanged herself. She left her father a heart-breaking suicide note denying the accusation and saying she wanted to spare him the shame.