Public caning in Aceh
An Acehnese woman convicted for "immoral acts" being canned by a hooded government official. AFP photo

The international rights group, Human Rights Watch has urged the authorities in Aceh to release unconditionally two women who were arrested on suspicion of being lesbians after they were seen hugging in public.

The arrests were made under an Islamic bylaw, which the rights group said was contrary to the rights to non-discrimination and fundamental freedoms under the Indonesian Constitution and international human rights law.

On 28 September, the religious police or sharia police arrested two women, aged 18 and 19 years old for hugging in public in Banda Aceh. A police officer told reporters that it was "suspected the two women were lesbians," the rights group said.

"The arrest of two women in Aceh for everyday behaviour is an outrageous abuse of police power that should be considered a threat to all Indonesians. The Indonesian government needs to press Aceh to repeal its discriminatory bylaws," the group's director for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights programme, Graeme Reid said in a statement.

According to Human Rights Watch, the two women were in police custody where officers were putting pressure on them to contact their families so that they could be released into their custody.

Lesbianism and sodomy, two offences prohibited by Aceh's criminal code, took effect from September last year. These offences however do not exist in Indonesia's criminal code.

"The Acehnese bylaws extend sharia or Islamic law to non-Muslims and the criminal code permits punishments of 100 lashes and 100 months in prison for consensual same-sex acts," it said. The Human Rights Watch group called on the Aceh provincial legislature to repeal the discriminatory bylaws.

The Aceh Legislative Council's legislative body head, Iskandar Usman Al-Farlaky told the Antara news agency that the qanun jinayat or Islamic behaviour-government bylaw in the province did not contradict the Criminal Law Procedures Code.

Referring to news that several non-governmental organisations in Jakarta were filing a judicial review against its by-law, he defended the by-law, saying that it was aimed at regulating the people's lives. There are fears that the by-laws had the potential to be used to discriminate against minority groups.

"It's just an opinion purportedly spread by parties that don't want to see Islamic laws implemented in Aceh. If they want to confront Islamic laws with issues related to gay and lesbian groups, there will likely be a sharp difference in opinion," Iskandar told the Antara.