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Last Updated: Friday, 8 December 2006, 09:54 GMT
Aceh wary over new Sharia police
By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Aceh

Aceh Sharia police on patrol
The new police are seen as inexperienced
An hour before dusk and the newest law enforcers in the Indonesian province of Aceh - its Sharia police - are getting ready for the evening patrol.

They line up on the back of the pick-up truck, women on one side, men on the other, wearing uniform baseball caps and clutching walkie-talkies.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province allowed to apply Sharia, or Islamic, law.

But with the province preparing for its first election since last year's peace deal ended years of separatist violence, the Sharia police's role has become increasingly controversial.

As the truck moves through the early evening traffic, Yustina explains the rules.

"We just patrol around," she said. "We look for anyone not wearing proper Islamic dress, or any couples who are hanging out together without being married. We usually head down towards the beach - there's where lots of people hang out."

Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
High percentage of Muslims, and only province where Sharia law allowed
Separatist rebels fought decades-long campaign against Jakarta
December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated region
New peace talks led to August 2005 agreement
December 2006 elections for governor and district leaders

It does not take long to find their first target - a couple sitting in a parked car, at the side of the road.

One by one, the team surrounds them. A discussion develops and after a few minutes the couple drive off.

"We reminded them that in Aceh you have Sharia Law now and you're not allowed to do this," the leader of the patrol said, "even though they were actually husband and wife. This is a public place and it stirs up socially jealousy - people don't know they're husband and wife, so they're not allowed to do it."

In fact the Sharia police should not be targeting married couples at all. Their brief is quite specific - to check for alcohol and gambling, for anyone not conforming to the Islamic dress codes and for signs of sexual contact between unmarried couples.

After finding these crimes, they are meant to simply hand the evidence over to the police.

Bad reputation

But they have been getting a rather zealous reputation recently.

At his office in Aceh's Islamic Institute, Yusni Sabri has been giving a lot of thought to the development of Sharia Law.

Woman having her clothes checked in Aceh
Rules on dress are being strictly enforced

He supports it; enough to give a sermon before the province's first public caning.

But he says the Sharia police are getting a bad reputation among ordinary people.

"The way these Sharia police are acting when something happens is not appreciated," he said, "because they're young, they have no experience, they're newly installed. So what they need is more experience, and more training."

He believes that, while Islam is strongly rooted in Aceh, many people support the growth of Sharia law as proof of the province's autonomy.

Aceh holds elections on Monday to choose a new governor and local district heads.

The elections are the result of a peace deal, signed last year, under which separatist rebels gave up their struggle for independence in return for unprecedented autonomy within Indonesia.

Yusni Sabri also believes that three decades of conflict in Aceh left people hungry for any law and order that works.

"For some time we lost everything," he says, "Aceh had no law, there was complete lawlessness. If you were tortured or jailed, who would you report to? Nobody. So when there is no law, people feel any law must be good."

But the problem with adding a new layer of law enforcement is what it does to the existing one.

Back on patrol, Yustina voices her unease. "The police think they're so great" she said, "they look down on us; they think they can ignore us."

Across town, chief police investigator Suedi Husen said that despite the tensions, his officers broadly welcome the support from the Sharia police - especially as the peace agreement has restricted the number of regular police allowed to operate in Aceh.

But he said there was a need for more training to ensure the Sharia patrols keep within the remit of their authority.

"There are several people in that organisation who over-react to the problems they find. But the dividing line is clear, it's been kept that way - the Sharia police cannot act on violations."

But plans for the Sharia police are focused less on ensuring they work within their authority than on expanding it. The province is currently rolling out a programme giving them new powers of investigation.

Meanwhile, Aceh's politicians, locked in an election race, are steadfastly looking the other way.

The province's newest law enforcers may be good at watching over the public's behaviour, but with Islamic law standing for so much here now, who is going to be watching over them?

Viewpoints: Aceh's first elections
06 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Election campaign begins in Aceh
24 Nov 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Acehnese mark one year of peace
15 Aug 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Indonesia
18 Oct 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Indonesia
18 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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