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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 4 March, 2003, 09:48 GMT
Aceh's Sharia court opens
Acehnese children pray together at Baiturrahman mosque in Banda Aceh
Aceh is a bastion for conservative Islam
The Indonesian province of Aceh has inaugurated its first Sharia court.

The governor of the province, Abdullah Puteh, said the court would implement Islamic law "in a moderate way and gradually".

He said the province did not want to infringe human rights or gender issues with the arrival of Sharia, which non-Muslims sometimes associate with hardline and controversial punishments.

But the Jakarta director of the International Crisis Group, Sidney Jones, told the BBC it was unclear how far the implementation of Sharia would go.

It will apply to property and family law, and some cases of criminal law, but the exact overlap with the existing district courts was still unknown, Ms Jones said.

I will be very happy if they apply Sharia law
Acehnese woman
Aceh was granted permission to implement partial Sharia law two years ago, as part of an autonomy deal offered by the central government in Jakarta.

The autonomy package formed the basis of a ceasefire signed in December between the government and the pro-independence rebel group GAM (Free Aceh Movement), aimed at bringing an end to almost three decades of civil conflict.

Although the situation has improved since the peace deal was signed, there are still isolated violent attacks.

On Monday an angry mob ransacked the office of a group of international monitors overseeing the peace agreement, and two Indonesians working for the organisation were slightly injured.

The rebels have accused the Indonesian military of being behind the attack.

But the military maintain the villagers were rioting in anger at the monitors' alleged failure to act after they complained of being victims of rebel extortion.

Public caning

The new court was inaugurated on Tuesday to coincide with Islamic New Year.

Many Acehnese appear to welcome the move, and thousands of people staged a march on Monday in the provincial capital Bandeh Aceh to support the new court.

"I will be very happy if they apply Sharia law, because it will be safer for women if we go out," one of the marchers told the BBC.

But Sidney Jones said there were also a large number of Acehnese who were offended that the state wanted to enforce their own piety.

For the time being, the Sharia court will concentrate on religious issues such as what to do with Muslims who fail to attend Friday prayers, or who sell food and cigarettes during the fasting month of Ramadan.

In either case, a person found guilty could be sentenced to a public caning.

But eventually the plan is for the court to handle more serious cases such as murder, theft and adultery, as well as economic and financial crimes.

Sharia law is not entirely new in Aceh. The province already has about 20 religious district courts dealing mostly with local issues such as divorces.

But with the new provincial-level court, Aceh will be able to enforce Islamic law more broadly.

It will not, however, be able to apply it to the Christian minority in the province.

The BBC correspondent in Jakarta, Rachel Harvey, says that while 90% of Indonesia's 220 million citizens describe themselves as Muslim, most practise a fairly liberal interpretation of their religion.

Aceh seems to be living up to its reputation as a bastion of conservative Islam, our correspondent says.

Peace monitors attacked in Aceh
03 Mar 03 |  Asia-Pacific
First Sharia court for Aceh
26 Feb 03 |  Asia-Pacific
The Sharia effect?
01 Oct 02 |  AfricaLive
Aceh peace deal reaches new phase
09 Feb 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Will Aceh's deal work?
08 Dec 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Aceh's separatists
09 Dec 02 |  Asia-Pacific

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