Authorities on the Indonesian island of Sumatra charged four healthcare workers with blasphemy, a crime in the country, on Tuesday after they allegedly violated Islamic law by bathing a deceased coronavirus patient’s corpse despite not being her mahram, or unmarriable close family.
Islamic law forbids women from exposing their aurat, or parts of their body normally covered for modesty’s sake, to men who are not their mahram. The rule applies to the pre-burial bathing ritual of deceased persons practiced in Islam, which can only be performed for a deceased female by her mahram.
Two nurses and two forensic staff members employed by a state hospital in North Sumatra province bathed a 50-year-old deceased female coronavirus patient in September 2020 as part of the hospital’s routine post-mortem hygiene practice but failed to ensure that the deceased woman’s family members or female hospital staff observed the bathing.
The deceased woman’s family later filed a police complaint against the four male health workers, who were subsequently charged with “not providing medical service in accordance with standards of the profession and standard operational procedures” under Indonesia’s medical practice law, a crime punishable by up to one year in prison.
North Sumatra Police spokesman Hadi Wahyudi confirmed on February 23 that authorities have decided to further charge the four health workers with blasphemy under Indonesia’s Criminal Code (KUHP). Blasphemy is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
While Indonesia is officially a secular state, several religious and political groups have called for the country to become an Islamic state. The semi-autonomous Indonesian province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra officially enforces Islamic law or sharia.
The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the highest Islamic body in Indonesia, supported charging the health workers with blasphemy on February 23, noting that MUI issued an Islamic edict or fatwa last year ruling that medical staff must adhere to Islamic laws while washing the bodies of deceased coronavirus patients.
The fatwa stipulates that “the bodies of men are washed by men or women who are their wives and daughters. For women corpses are washed by women, except by men who are their husbands and sons [sic],” MUI Deputy Chairman Anwar Abbas told Indonesia’s Detik News on Tuesday.
While Abbas told the news site that he “could not say whether the violation was categorized as blasphemy,” he said the health workers did not wash the corpse in accordance with Islamic law.
“As for the term, I cannot categorize it, but what is clear is that the officers do not pay attention to the provisions stipulated by Islamic law,” he said.
“It’s clear that the nurses did not observe the terms set by Islamic law,” Abbas added.
The four health workers have not been detained but are required to report to the North Sumatra district attorney regularly while police continue their investigation into the case. They remained employed by the local state hospital as of this week.