Prosecutors seek caning for gay couple in Indonesia's Aceh

A security official from the prosecutor's office escorts two men accused of having gay sex into a holding cell to wait for the start of their trial at Shariah court in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Shariah prosecutors in Aceh province said the two men should each receive 80 lashes, in another blow to the country's moderate image after a top Christian official was imprisoned for blasphemy. (AP Photo/Heri Juanda)
Two men accused of having gay sex sit on the defendants' chairs during their trial at Shariah court in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Shariah prosecutors in Aceh province said the two men should each receive 80 lashes, in another blow to the country's moderate image after a top Christian official was imprisoned for blasphemy. (AP Photo/Heri Juanda)

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Shariah prosecutors in Indonesia's Aceh province say two men on trial for gay sex should each be punished with 80 lashes, in another blow to the country's moderate image after a top Christian official was imprisoned for blasphemy.

The lead prosecutor, Gulmaini, who goes by one name, said Wednesday the two men aged 20 and 23 had "confessed" to being in a gay relationship, which was supported by video footage and other evidence found in their rented room.

The men were led into the court handcuffed together and pulled their tops up to partially obscure their faces.

The couple was arrested in late March after neighborhood vigilantes in the provincial capital Banda Aceh suspected them of being gay and set out to catch them having sex. Mobile phone footage that circulated online and forms part of the evidence shows one of the men naked and visibly distressed as he apparently calls for help on his cellphone. The second man is repeatedly pushed by another man who is preventing the couple from leaving the room.

If found guilty, the men will be the first to be caned for gay sex under a new Shariah code implemented in Aceh two years ago. Aceh is the only province in Muslim-majority Indonesia to practice Shariah law, which was a concession made by the national government in 2006 to end a years-long war with separatists.

Indonesia's reputation for practicing a moderate form of Islam has been battered in the past year due to attacks on religious minorities, a surge in persecution of gays and a polarizing election campaign for Jakarta governor that highlighted the growing strength of hard-line Islamic groups.

On Tuesday, the outgoing Jakarta governor, a minority Christian, was sentenced to two years prison for blaspheming the Quran.

In Aceh, the Shariah court's panel of three judges will announce its verdict next week.

Gulmani told reporters that the men did not accept the court's offer to appoint a defense lawyer. He declined to elaborate but guilty verdicts are certain in most cases that reach the Shariah court.

The Shariah code allows up to 100 lashes for morality offenses including gay sex. Caning is also a punishment for adultery, gambling, drinking alcohol, women who wear tight clothes and men who skip Friday prayers.

Human Rights Watch has called for authorities to immediately release the two men. "These men had their privacy invaded in a frightening and humiliating manner and now face public torture for the 'crime' of their alleged sexual orientation," it said in a statement last month.

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