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Amorous couples, sex workers whipped in Indonesia's Aceh

Nurdin Hasan
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More than a thousand people, including dozens of tourists from neighbouring Malaysia, jeered and screamed abuse at the group as they were flogged outside a mosque in the capital Banda Aceh

More than a thousand people, including dozens of tourists from neighbouring Malaysia, jeered and screamed abuse at the group as they were flogged outside a mosque in the capital Banda Aceh (AFP Photo/CHAIDEER MAHYUDDIN)

A group of amorous couples and accused sex workers were publicly whipped for breaking Islamic law in Indonesia's Aceh Friday, just a week after the province pledged to move the widely condemned practice indoors.

More than a thousand people, including dozens of tourists from neighbouring Malaysia, jeered and screamed abuse at the group of three men and five women as they were flogged on a stage outside a mosque in the capital Banda Aceh.

Some snapped pictures as a hooded figure rained down lashes from a rattan cane on their backs, with each getting between 11 and 22 strokes.

The couples were whipped for showing affection in public, while two of the women were suspected sex workers, officials said.

Aceh is the only province in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country that imposes Islamic law.

Flogging is a common punishment for a range of offences -- from gambling, to drinking alcohol to having gay sex or relations outside of marriage.

The conservative region on the northern tip of Sumatra island passed a regulation a week ago that would see criminals whipped only behind prison walls.

It was not clear when the new rule would come into effect.

The move was in response to a wave of international criticism over the practice, which has included flogging members of the vulnerable LGBT community and, in some cases, non-Muslims.

Non-Muslims can usually choose whether or not to be punished under religious law and sometimes opt for a painful flogging to avoid a long court process and jail term.

Rights groups have derided the punishment as cruel and last year Indonesia's President Joko Widodo called for an end to public whippings in Aceh.

Around 98 percent of the province's five million residents are Muslims, subject to religious law, including the public whippings which came into practice around 2005.

Under the new rules, caning cannot be recorded anymore and only journalists and adults can witness the punishment inside prisons. Children have often been present at public canings.

Some conservative groups are protesting against the end of public whippings, saying it has a strong deterrent effect on crime.

"Today's flogging is evidence that (the government) and our people are still committed to implementing Islamic law," said Banda Aceh's deputy mayor Zainal Arifin.

"This is not only about physical punishment for violators, but also to set an example for members of the public who witness the flogging directly or watch it on social media."

However, Arifin insisted the latest whippings were not an act of defiance against fresh rules set by the province.

"We understand that the regulation has not yet come into effect and the prison is not yet ready to (host floggings) so that is why we are still doing it (in public)," he said.

"Until the new regulation is officially in place we will carry on as usual."