Severance Play

A regional government comes out strongly against a plan to enact the punishment of severing the hands of thieves.

THINGS appeared to be serious at a conference of regional leaders at the government office of the Regency of Bulukumba in South Sulawesi, on Wednesday last week. Officials ranging from village chiefs up to the regent himself all showed up for the event. A rather weighty issue was being deliberated, namely the plan to enact the punishment of the cutting off of the hands of thieves in the Gantarang district.

“There may not be any regulations which are at odds with our positive laws,” said Padasi, Deputy Regent of Bulukumba, Thursday last week. This controversial issue came out of a meeting of 20 assistant village chiefs at At-Taqwa Mosque, Padang village, Gantarang district, Bulukumba, on November 18.

While sitting cross-legged, they discussed the security situation, which they felt was worsening. “Almost every night someone is robbed,” said Andi Rukman Jabbar, Padang village head. In the last two months, the number of thefts in 12 villages has increased drastically.

Residents of Gantarang are restless. They feel police have not been giving their best effort. Thieves are rarely caught, and even when they are, the punishments are light. The assistant village chiefs and public figures finally agreed to form the Concern for Security and Public Order Forum. Rukman was appointed the group’s chairman.

After the Forum was formed, their working program was discussed. The thefts were their main concern. In this meeting, someone said: “There is one thief who has gone to jail five times but has still not learnt his lesson.” A motion was made so that thieves who are caught be given a “mark” in order to deter them from committing future crimes.

“Of course, there must be a legal basis for doing so, whether in state law or Islamic law,” said Rukman. If they refer to state law, he continued, the perpetrators must be handed over to the police. If they refer to Islamic law, then the penalty is the cutting of a hand.

It turned out that most of the participants agreed with the concept of cutting the hand of a known thief. “To discourage them,” said one of the participants. However, some disagreed. “This could turn into a new conflict,” said another.

The problem is, most of the thieves come from outside the region. “What if they seek revenge?” Also discussed was what to do with thieves who are to be handed over to police. One person suggested that they should be “immobilized” before being handed over.

In this two-hour meeting, said Rukman, an extreme proposition was made: just “finish off” the thieves who are caught. Fortunately, the majority of the participants rejected this idea.

The controversy began after the story made the news. Two days after the meeting, Gantarang district head Andi M. Pawali telephoned Rukman. The latter explained that this was not an agreement, but was still in the concept stage and part of the Forum’s working program. “We need to consult about it,” said Rukman.

Four days after the meeting, Padasi, the Deputy Regent of Bulukumba, invited to his office the 20 village heads who attended the At-Taqwa Mosque gathering. At the end of the meeting, Padasi reminded them that they may not take action outside of state law. “Islamic law has not yet been agreed upon in Indonesia,” said Padasi, as told by one of the village heads.

The Regent held a conference of regional leaders, by inviting all village heads in the Gantarang district. It was declared at the conference that the punishment of cutting the hand of a thief may not be carried out. “In this meeting the [cutting the hand] was rejected because it was felt that it had no legal basis, from any [legal] perspective,” said Bulukumba Police Chief, Adj. Sr. Comr. Ponadi.

The police were then asked to form a police-public partnership forum to deal with public security problems. However, Ponadi felt that the thefts in Gantarang were still at a normal level, even though he did not mention the number of cases.

Of the five livestock theft rings, only one has been caught. Even now there are three repeat offenders in police custody. Ponadi played down the idea that the authorities are not doing all they can. “We always follow the due legal process,” he said. The lenient sentences given by the courts are not in his jurisdiction.

Padasi added that that meeting in Padang village was actually to form the Concern for Security Forum. For sure, the matter of the cutting of the hands of thieves was talked about. “But no decision was made,” he said.

Rukman had been invited to the conference via telephone. Initially he said he could make it, but later he cancelled because a family member had passed away. He heard about the outcome of the conference from another village chief. “I am a subordinate,” said Rukman. “The important thing is that notice is taken regarding the public’s aspiration for stern measures to be taken against thieves.”


In South Sulawesi, Bulukumba is active in issuing regional regulations which are nuanced with Islamic law. These regulations deal with the ban, supervision, regulations, distribution, and sale of alcoholic drinks; about the management of alms, charity, and poor-due taxes paid by workers; about clothing standards for Muslim men and women; and also about students and marrying couples being able to recite the Arabic text of the Qur’an.

Since 2003, 12 villages in Bulukumba have been named as model regions for the application of regional regulations. These villages are called “Muslim villages.” Padang, which has a population of 3,700, is one such model.

Don’t be surprised, for instance, if an announcement is made at the home of the village chief: “Sorry, we do not receive female guests who do not wear headscarves.” An exception is made for those who do not yet know the regulation because it is their first time to come to this region.

If there is a female guest not dressed in Islamic garb, she will be lent the necessary items of clothing. “All the residents here are Muslims,” said Rukman. Unlike other districts in Bulukumba, Gantarang has village rules regarding unbecoming conduct. This rule provides for a lashing punishment for offenders.

Made in 2005, the regulation has punished three offenders, namely Suharman, Nasir, and Arifin. Suharman was whipped 40 times for sending a letter to someone’s wife, Nasir was given five lashes for hitting an elementary school student, and Arifin was given five lashes for slapping a resident.

Although this is not the first place outside Aceh to enact Islamic laws through a number of regional regulations, Bulukumba is the first to enact the lashing punishment. “Perhaps Bulukumba is the only place outside Aceh which has applied the lashing punishment,” said Achmad Suaedy, Director of the Wahid Institute.

Regional House of Representatives Speaker Moh. Arif had a stern comment. According to him, such a regulation is wrong and cannot be applied. “If it is against a higher law, then it should nullify itself,” said Arif. “This is the Republic of Indonesia, not the Republic of Bulukumba.”

Aswar Hasan, a member of the Preparation Committee for the Enactment of Islamic Law in South Sulawesi, said that other regencies also have regional regulations based on Islamic law. He mentioned Selayar, Pangkep, and Enrekang. The difference is, in those regions it is still limited to the poor-due tax, Muslim dress, alcoholic drinks, gambling, and adultery/fornication. He feels that the discussion regarding the hand-cutting punishment for thieves is a sign of progress. “However, its enactment is still far from actually happening,” he said.

Sociologist Mohamad Darwis said he is not surprised with this Bulukumba phenomenon. The application of Islamic law in South Sulawesi has more to do with social and political factors.

Former Regent of Bulukumba, Patabai Pabokori, was active in introducing Islamic laws. As the culture in this region is very paternalistic in nature, the idea was easily accepted. “Moreover the Makassar Bugis people are basically religious people,” said this teacher of sociology at the Faculty of Social & Political Science at Hasanuddin University.

Abdul Manan, Irmawati (Makassar)

Tempo Magazine, No. 14/VIII/December 04-10, 2007


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