As It Happens

Reporter describes watching gay Indonesian couple being caned in front of cheering crowd

BBC reporter Rebecca Henschke witnessed two men who were publicly caned 83 times each in Aceh for consensual gay sex.
Shariah law official whips one of two men convicted of gay sex during a public caning outside a mosque in Indonesia's Aceh province on Tuesday. (Heri Juanda/Associated Press)
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Before two men were publicly caned 83 times each for having consensual gay sex in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia to practice Shariah law, reporter Rebecca Henschke went to visit one of them in prison.

"It seemed from our conversation that the two months in prison with men, many who hold strong homophobic views, was a very difficult time for him and he was glad that the caning was taking place and he could now return to his family," the BBC's Indonesia correspondent told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The medical student and his partner — both in their early twenties — were caught in an intimate act two months ago by a vigilante mob who dragged them naked from the boarding room they'd rented to be together. 

"This raid was filmed on a mobile phone," Henschke said. "The footage of it as been widely shared on social media and it shows the men clearly terrified, pleading for help, one of them trying to call someone on a phone, and then they were marched down to the Sharia police."

On May 17, police officer escorts two men accused of having gay sex into a holding cell to wait for the start of their trial at Shariah court. BBC Indonesia reporter Rebecca Henschke visited one of the men in prison. (Henri Juanda/Associated Press)

Henschke hasn't spoken to the young man since, but she was on hand Tuesday to film and bear witness to the men's public punishment. 

"They were marched onto a stage in front of a mosque. They were dressed in white, and the executioners, as they call them, were dressed in hoods so you couldn't see their identity," she said.

"In front of the crowd of hundreds of people, men and women separated, they were marched to the front of the stage, told to stand still and then they were whipped or lashed on their back with a cane 83 times while a man counted the number over the loudspeaker, and the crowed cheered, booed, some men in the crowd saying, 'Hit them harder,' others yelling, 'Let this be a lesson to you.'"

Women react as a Shariah law official whips a man convicted of gay sex during a public caning outside a mosque in Banda Aceh. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the event. (Heri Juanda/Associated Press)

At one point, she said, medics stopped the caning to check on one of the men and give him some water before the punishment continued. 

"You could definitely see their emotion," she said. "They were gripping their hands tightly. It was clearly a painful experience for them."

Her footage of the caning, as well as her first-hand description of the event, are published on BBC News

A man is escorted during whipping in front of the public as punishment for being in a same-sex relationship. He and his partner were caned 83 times each. (Hotly Simanjuntak/EPA)

With the exception of Aceh, homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, but the country's low-profile LGBT community has been increasingly under siege in recent years with stridently anti-gay comments from cabinet ministers and other high-profile Indonesians.

"I think its important to say that Indonesia generally is a very tolerant and diverse society and it does have a rich history, particular a transgender community, or waria as they're known," Henschke said.

"Generally people have been fairly tolerant to gay people in the community as long as they're not virulently showing their affection or politically asking for rights."

Anti-gay crackdown

But that is starting to change, she said, as the country's youth become increasingly conservative. 

Last month, police in Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, arrested 14 men at what they alleged was a sex party and forced them to have HIV tests.

Indonesian police in West Java said Wednesday they have set up a task force to investigate activities by gays in the country's most populous province.

West Java police chief Anton Charliyan said the task force — which includes police, army and provincial officials — is aimed at preventing activities in the province such as an alleged gay sex party recently raided in the capital, Jakarta, in which 141 men, including four foreigners, were detained.

Police officers escort men arrested in a raid on a gay sauna in Jakarta, in which 10 men were charged with breaking the country's pornography laws. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)

Police arrested 10 of the men on charges of violating the country's pornography law.  If found guilty, they could face penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines.

Meanwhile, the young man Henschke met will have more tough times ahead. His name and image have been publicly released and widely shared in his home province, where he has been been kicked out of medical school.

His own family, she said, never came to visit him the entire time he was in prison, and there are reports they've faced threats in the village where they live.

"He said he just wanted to go back to his family, go back to the life that he had before, but that will be very difficult after the public shaming," she said. "He has a very difficult journey ahead of him."

With files from Associated Press

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