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Last Updated: Friday, 24 June, 2005, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Aceh gamblers caned in public
The Indonesian province of Aceh has held its first public caning, under the region's special Islamic laws.

Fifteen people were caned for gambling offences outside a mosque in the town of Bireuen on Friday.

Aceh implemented partial Sharia law in 2001, as part of an autonomy deal offered by the Jakarta government.

The province has a higher proportion of Muslims than other areas of Indonesia, and many Acehnese practice a stricter version of Islam.

The 15 men were flogged with a rattan cane on a specially-constructed stage in front of the Grand Mosque following midday prayers on Friday.

Another 11 people are due to be caned at a later date.

According to reports from the scene, the event was more of a festival than a punishment exercise.

According to a BBC reporter in Bireuen, Maskur Abdullah, crowds of people, including children, watched the proceedings - cheering and booing as the culprits were brought onto the stage to receive their punishments.

One of the convicted men even faced the crowd afterwards and showed told them he had felt no pain, our reporter says.

On Thursday Bireuen's district chief Mustafa Geulanggang explained why the authorities had decided to implement caning as a punishment.

"It's not about pain," he told the BBC. "The aim is to shame people and deter them from doing the same criminal acts in the future."

Partial self-rule

The Jakarta government allowed Aceh to implement Sharia law as part of a 2001 package offering the province limited self-rule.

The package was designed to end the long-running insurgency by separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, Gam.

An Acehnese rebel fighter, Monday 17 Jan
The separatist campaign in Aceh has been going on for 29 years

Although the peace process broke down in May 2003, the province continued to implement the new laws.

The people of Aceh are banned from gambling, adultery and drinking alcohol, and both men and women are expected to dress modestly.

But analysts say that some of the harsher punishments imposed in other Sharia states, such as amputation of hands and feet or even stonings, are extremely unlikely to be carried out in Aceh.

It is unclear how much support the imposition of Islamic law has in the province.

The rebels have made it clear they are not fighting for an Islamic state and are opposed to the new measures.

Since the Indian Ocean tsunami last December, which devastated huge swathes of Aceh and left 160,000 people dead or missing, both the Jakarta government and the rebels have renewed their efforts to negotiate a peace settlement.

But on the ground the conflict continues, and analysts fear it could hinder the post-tsunami reconstruction.

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