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Divorce by text message sparks bizarre legal battle in Indonesia

10:14 AM, Dec 6, 2012   |    comments
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Jarkarta, Indonesia (CNN) -- The marriage lasted four days and ended in divorce via text message, from the 40-year-old local politician to his 17-year-old wife.

Aceng Fikri claimed his young bride Fani Oktara was not a virgin, as she had claimed, so he decided to end the union, his lawyer Ujang Suja'I said.

She denied it, and in turn accused Aceng -- who is the head of the district of Garut in West Java -- of spreading baseless accusations against her. Her lawyer Danny Suliwisjaya told CNN that Aceng had deceived his client into marriage.

Aceng caused a stir after his July wedding to Fani. Although 16 is the legal age for marriage in Indonesia, Aceng was already married with children. Few Muslims practice polygamy, and while it is not against the law, Indonesian civil servants are also prohibited from taking on second spouses under strict regulations governing their private lives.

A photo of the alleged wedding ceremony was posted on the Internet. Religious weddings are common in Indonesia but marriages need to be civilly and legally registered.

Aceng claimed divorcing his wife through text messaging is allowed under Islamic Sharia law, his lawyer said.

Public outrage over the marriage, and subsequent divorce, came after Fani reported Aceng to the police on Monday, asking that he be charged with falsifying his marital status, fraud, defamation and unpleasant conduct.

Police are still investigating Fani's complaint; as yet, there are no charges against Aceng.

There have since been daily protests in Garut, calling for his resignation.

The girl's lawyer, Danny Suliswijaya, told CNN she and her family decided to go public only after months of asking Aceng for an apology.

Suliswijaya said Aceng told Fani that he was a widower.

"He said he married Fani as his only wife, so he cheated and failed to tell the truth," Suliswijaya said. The lawyer claims Aceng also reneged on promises to send her to university and to the minor Hajj in Mecca.

The embattled official apologized late Monday but stood by his version of the story. "If what I did was wrong, even though it was allowed by Islamic law, then I deeply apologize to my family and my ex-wife," he told reporters. Ujang told CNN they will report Fani and her family to the police, seeking charges of fraud and extortion.

"Aceng accused her of not being a virgin on the second day of their marriage and she didn't deny it. That's why Aceng decided to end the marriage and send her back to her parents," Aceng's lawyer said. Fani's attorney insists the accusations are baseless.

According to his lawyer, Aceng gave the girl's family 43 million rupiah (roughly $4,000) for her university fees and the minor Hajj trip. He says the girl's family agreed to the settlement but continued to contact Aceng for more money, "blackmailing the district head." Fani's attorney denies Aceng's claims, and says all his client wanted was an apology.

Indonesian President Susilo has ordered the Home Affairs Ministry to summon Aceng and investigate the matter. On Wednesday, Garut's local legislative council also decided to create a special committee to look into Aceng's case.

His lawyer said the case needed "to go through legal channels," and that his client's potential removal as district chief was not imminent: "the council has to wait for the results of the police investigation before making a decision on Aceng's dismissal."

Women and children's rights activists, however, welcome the investigations and the public outcry over the case.

Muhammad Ihsan, secretary of the Commission for the Protection of Indonesian Children or KPAI, told CNN the regent head may be held liable for a sexual offense, if it is proven that the regent head deceived the teenage girl.

The commission says human trafficking, the illegal sex trade and the exploitation of women are rampant, particularly in the province of West Java.

In not a few cases, parents or relatives give up their teenage daughters for marriage, in exchange for money.

Ihsan said that when the facts of this case become clearer, it could highlight well-known and common practices of exploiting young women.

"If a public official is allowed to get away with behavior like this, then the public will think this is acceptable," said Ihsan.

Rudy Madanir contributed to this report.

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