The tiny Southeast Asian nation of Brunei brought into force on Wednesday a new penal code based on sharia or Islamic law that has sparked an international outcry and fears among some citizens.
The move was announced quietly by a small commencement notification on a Brunei government website on Dec. 29 last year.
The new penal code includes punishment for sodomy, adultery and rape through death by stoning; theft by amputation of the right hand and left foot, and other punitive measures such as whipping, imprisonment and fines for drinking alcohol or sexual intimacy between two women.
Brunei is the first country in the region to introduce sharia on a national level. Neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia enforce Islamic law in some regions but do not practice the more extreme elements that Brunei is introducing. Aceh province on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, for example, holds public canings for what it considers crimes such as adultery, but does not have a provision for stoning.
The Muslim-majority oil-rich sultanate has a population of about 440,000. Brunei does not hold elections and is solely ruled by 72-year-old Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the world’s second-longest reigning monarch and one of the wealthiest. He has also been prime minister since 1984.
After the commencement notice set off a widespread outcry, the prime minister’s office defended itself over the weekend and affirmed the laws would be implemented Wednesday.
“Brunei Darussalam is a sovereign Islamic and fully independent country and, like all other independent countries, enforces its own rule of law,” the statement said.
Matthew Woolfe, founder of human rights initiative The Brunei Project, said there are those in the country who openly support the laws, but “there are real risks to those who speak out.”
Although “freedom of speech is heavily restricted,” Woolfe said that opponents are vocal in online spaces where they can maintain anonymity.
“They are expressing a lot of concerns about these laws and the direction the country is taking. Many see these laws as a sign that the country is going backwards and they are concerned that this direction may scare off investors in the country and also people from visiting,” he said.
Woolfe said the implementation of the laws has sparked fear and anxiety among many in Brunei and some feel lucky to have left the country before the sudden announcement.
“Two Bruneians I am in contact with are currently seeking asylum in Canada and are glad to have escaped when they had the chance. One of those Bruneians fled the country last year because she feared what the future would hold for her as someone who is transgender and knowing that these laws were to be implemented at some point in the future, although at that time we did not know how close to implementation the laws were,” Woolfe said.
Set up by the world’s first openly queer imam, Muhsin Hendricks, the Compassion-Centered Islam network describes itself as a hub and voice of queer Muslims and other marginalized groups.
In a statement, it slammed the “draconian new penal code based on defunct sharia law that does not uphold the Quranic values of mercy and compassion” and appealed to the sultan to stop the punishment and the perpetuation of negative stereotyping of Muslims.
“This retrogressive thinking will only reinforce the already-escalating Islamophobia in the world,” it said.
The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Monday called on Brunei to stop the new laws, “which would mark a serious setback for human rights protections for the people of Brunei.”
The country carried out its last execution in 1957 when it was still a British protectorate and Bachelet urged it to maintain its de-facto moratorium.
“In reality, no judiciary in the world can claim to be mistake-free, and evidence shows that the death penalty is disproportionately applied against people who are already vulnerable, with a high risk of miscarriages of justice,” she said.
American actor George Clooney and British singer Elton John called for boycotts of the sultan’s international properties, including The Dorchester in London, the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, and the Plaza Athenee in Paris.
But the Brunei Project does not support this action, saying it would be unproductive. In 2014, following the first implementation of elements of the laws, international boycotts were viewed as a direct attack on the people and the country, rather than against the government’s laws and policies, it said, adding that the boycotts arguably hurt innocent people such as the employees of the companies targeted.
Brunei needs to be reminded of its duty to protect human rights regardless of the country’s cultural systems, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairperson and Malaysia Member of Parliament Charles Santiago told EFE.
"While we fully respect Brunei’s religious and cultural heritage, the State should also be reminded of its duty to promote and protect all human rights – including fundamental freedoms and the ability to freely practice one’s religion or belief – regardless of a country’s political, economic and cultural systems. Instead, this sharia-based penal code does the exact opposite,” Santiago said.
“This runs counter to international human rights standards, as well as global trends towards the abolition of capital punishment. In addition, certain provisions in the code could also be applied to non-Muslims, raising grave concerns about the law’s implications on other faiths and beliefs other than Islam,” he added.
The 10-country ASEAN bloc practices a principle of non-interference in the affairs of member states. This has been especially highlighted in recent years in the case of Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim-minority Rohingya population, the effects of which have rippled across the region only to be met largely with silence.
Santiago said it was also unlikely that Southeast Asian governments would speak out against member state Brunei.
“Although we remain hopeful that ASEAN will one day become a truly ‘people-centered’ organization, its ‘non-interference’ principle remains a key barrier that prevents the regional bloc from effectively doing so,” he said.
“If most ASEAN member states find it morally acceptable to stand idly by whilst the Myanmar military continues to carry out human rights violations against the Rohingya community, then we are unlikely to see any of the governments take Brunei to task on this, at least not publicly,” Santiago added.