Wed, 05 Mar 2003

Aceh initiates 'moderate' sharia court

Ibnu Matnoor, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh, Aceh

The Indonesian province of Aceh opened its first sharia court on Tuesday as part of its special autonomy status granted by the central government, but top local officials promised to uphold Islamic law in a moderate way.

"The Islamic law will be implemented gradually and in a moderate way. We want to build a cool image of Islam in Aceh," Governor Abdullah Puteh told guests at the opening ceremony.

He vowed that his government would not encroach on human rights and gender issues in enforcing sharia.

"We guarantee that the implementation of Islamic sharia will not infringe on human rights and gender issues, and non-Muslims can practice their religion and their daily activities as usual," Puteh said.

The court was officially established in accordance with Tuesday's Islamic New Year celebrations.

The ceremony was attended by several ministers and around 500 local officials, councillors and ulemas. Yet, no ordinary civilians were present at the inauguration held at the Aceh legislative council, where half of seats were left vacant.

Minister of Religious Affairs Said Agil Hussein Al-Munawar read out a decree that established the sharia court, the first in the world's largest Muslim country where the majority of Muslims embrace a moderate form of their faith.

Minister of Home Affairs Hari Sabarno, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yusril Ihza Mahendra and Supreme Court chairman Bagir Manan also attended the event.

Bagir swore in the head of the sharia court at provincial level and at each of the province's 16 districts and four municipalities.

Head of Aceh's sharia office Alyasa' Abu Bakar said the staunchly Muslim province would not enforce radical sharia as some Islamic countries did.

"The sharia court in Aceh will not implement decapitation and limb amputations," he told The Jakarta Post.

Alyasa' said the court would eventually handle cases, including economic and financial crimes, marital disputes and other offenses ranging from theft to murder.

Violations of the Islamic code, such as consumption of alcohol, adultery and failure to fast during the month of Ramadhan, will also be heard in the court.

However, trials for those crimes could open only after religious decrees for Aceh were approved by the provincial legislative council.

Once endorsed, he added, the decrees currently being deliberated at the council would determine details of verdicts and punishments, sharia police and sharia prosecutors.

Tengku Muslim Ibrahim, who chairs Aceh's Ulema Consultative Council, confirmed his province would not implement severe Islamic punishments.

The court's establishment was also aimed at preventing crimes, including human rights violations in the war-torn province, he said.

"I hope the sharia court will become one of the significant elements in resolving the conflict in Aceh," he added.

Muhammad Saleh, deputy head of the provincial sharia court, said district courts would remain in existence to hear cases involving inter-religious offenses.

"There will be no overlapping authority between the sharia courts and the district courts. The Supreme Court will determine what should be dealt with by the sharia court and by the district court."

Saleh said his office had appointed 130 sharia judges. "We gave them special training on Islamic jurisprudence."

Similarly, another cleric, Abu Shekh Abdurrauf, who chairs the Darussalam Islamic boarding school in Bakongan, South Aceh, hailed the inauguration of the court.

"It is progress and we pray for it to be able to help end the fighting in Aceh," he said.

But local civilians doubted the establishment of the court would be effective to bring about an end to the 26-year war between government forces and separatists.

"The Aceh conflict is rooted from unjust treatment by the central government against the Acehnese people," Abdurrahman, a 43-year-old fish trader, said.

"When the central government begins to provide a slice of economic justice to Aceh, it does not reach poor people like me. The assistance has often been corrupted by central and local government officials," he added.

Citing an example, Abdurrahman said the Aceh administration declared the implementation of Islamic law a year ago, but it had failed to reduce corruption by officials.

"What is being enforced here now is sare-'ab (an Acehnese word for greed)."

Minister Hari Sabarno, speaking at the opening ceremony, said the court was part of the national judicial system. He did not elaborate further.

The central government in 2001 granted Aceh broad autonomy which allows it to implement partial sharia law and have its own sharia police and education system.

It also gives the province a much greater share of revenue from its rich resources.

Some 10,000 have been killed since an armed revolt by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) broke out in 1976. Bloodshed has continued despite a peace deal having been signed by the government and GAM last December.