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4 male health workers charged with blasphemy for bathing deceased female COVID-19 patient

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Authorities in Pematangsiantar, North Sumatra have charged four male health workers with blasphemy after they allegedly violated Islamic customs by bathing a deceased female COVID-19 patient who is not their mahram (unmarriable kin, usually immediate family members, and the husband).

Islam rules that women are not allowed to expose their aurat (Islamic term for parts of the body that should be covered for the sake of modesty) to men who are not their mahram. The same applies to the pre-burial bathing ritual of deceased females, which can only be performed by those who are the deceased’s mahram.

In September 2020, the four health workers, comprising two nurses and two forensics staff who work at a state hospital, bathed the 50-year-old deceased female COVID-19 patient in the absence of her family members and female employees at the time.

The deceased’s family then filed a police complaint against the four health workers, who were first charged with “not providing medical service in accordance with standards of the profession and standard operational procedures” under Indonesia’s Medical Practice Law, which is punishable by up to one year in prison.

As confirmed by North Sumatra Police spokesman Hadi Wahyudi yesterday, after further investigation into the case, police also tacked on a blasphemy charge under the Criminal Code (KUHP), which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the highest clerical body in the country, supported the charges as the organization issued a fatwa (religious edict) in 2020 ruling that Islamic laws must be observed in the handling of COVID-19 patients.

“It’s clear that the nurses did not observe the terms set by Islamic law,” MUI Deputy Chairman Anwar Abbas said yesterday.

The four health workers have not been detained but are required to regularly report to the district attorney while investigation into their case is ongoing. They were given sanctions by the hospital but have not lost their jobs as of this week.

One of the four said they did not actually perform a full bathing ritual on the deceased patient, instead they only cleaned and disinfected her body prior to burial.

“We are uncomfortable. We were tasked with handling deceased COVID-19 patients and yet we were said to have committed blasphemy. We were working to our fullest at the time,” the health worker told Tagar yesterday.

“We only know to serve. We don’t discriminate between religions, race, or social status. Because that is the oath we took.”

Rights activists have launched an online petition pleading to authorities to drop the charges on the four health workers. As of publication time, the petition has been signed by more than 16,000 people.

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