BANDA ACEH â€" The cafe is packed with men sitting in front of their third cup of coffee. They chat and smoke kreteks â€" a type of local clove cigarettes. The lighthearted mood is suddenly interrupted by the sound of the caféâ€™s metal shutters being slid downward. The conversation dies, the expressions grow frightened. The men are on the lookout. The café is located opposite the grand mosque in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh. Itâ€™s prayer time and they know they should be at the mosque.
Banda Aceh, the capital of the Sumatra province, has 4 million inhabitants â€" 98% of whom are Muslims. Itâ€™s the only Indonesian region governed by Sharia law. Wilayatul Hisbah, the female Sharia police, patrol the city in vans looking for men who arenâ€™t praying at the mosque. Last year, policewomen knocked down the caféâ€™s doors armed with batons to lecture patrons.
"For me, religion is something private. The government has no right to enforce that," says Andri, a 30-something Muslim with long hair thatâ€™s tied up in a ponytail.
In 2001, the region of Aceh acquired an autonomous status that allowed the province to introduce Islamic decrees in the penal code. So the local government banned gambling and alcohol, forced women to wear veils and modest clothing, and outlawed sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Any rule-breaking is met with public flagellation.
"Here, women can work, drive and enter the mosques through the same door as men," says Yusni Saby, former president of the Islamic University in Banda Aceh, highlighting the difference between how Sharia is practiced in his province and in Saudi Arabia. "Before being a person from Aceh, we are Indonesians and we must also adapt to national Indonesia law."
In 1976, civil war broke out in Aceh between the separatist Free Aceh Movement supported by locals and the Indonesian army. About 15,000 people were killed over three decades and thousands more went missing. The national government offered Aceh Sharia law in 2001 to appease separatist rebels and to restore peace in a region of Indonesia that has been called the "porch of Mecca."
On Dec. 26, 2004, the tsunami hit Aceh with full force even as the province was still recovering from the civil war. In 20 minutes, 168,000 locals died. The tragedy finally brought the conflict to an end and opened up the province to the rest of the world. Jakarta and Aceh signed a peace accord in Oslo. Humanitarian aid poured in from all over the world to rebuild the region.
But once the foreigners had left, Sharia law strengthened. Last year, more than 100 locals were caned for breaking Sharia law. In a report this year, human rights group Amnesty International said that the number of public floggings, especially in rural areas, was rising.
Last summer, police found 18-year-old Kiantri with her boyfriend in her bedroom â€" a crime under Sharia law. She was punished by being caned nine times in front of a village mosque. "It's a double penalty," says Ruwaida, director of the women's rights group Solidaritas Prempuan. "Not only are they publicly humiliated but women also often find themselves forced to leave the village because of their stained reputation."
Women are the first victims of Sharia law, says Ruwaida. "The biggest problem is freedom of expression. Clothing, curfews in the evening, behavior in public spaces.â€ The Islamic decrees are also impractical, she notes. Working in the mountains or driving a scooter on bumpy roads in a long skirt is risky and can lead to accidents.
City women also say there are no places to relax in Banda Aceh. "The beach closes at 6 p.m., concerts are banned after 11 p.m. and cinemas destroyed by the tsunami were never rebuilt," says Vira, a local singer, saying she doesn't feel free in Aceh.
But, Vira adds, alcohol and hotels for non-married couples are just a one-hour flight away.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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