Brunei backtracks on death penalty for gay sex after backlash

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BRUNEI: After global backlash, Brunei’s sultan on Sunday announced that punishment for violation of rules against gay sex and adultery in a Shariah code imposed in the country last month would not be enforced.

The code, which advocates death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, also punishes theft with the amputation of hands and feet. It fully came into force last month in the small sultanate on Borneo island, making it the only country in East or Southeast Asia with Shariah law at the national level.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, in a speech late on Sunday, said that a moratorium on capital punishment that already applies to Brunei’s regular criminal code would also extend to the new Shariah code. But critics on Monday called for the Shariah laws to be abandoned entirely.

The imposition of the new rules had sparked anger from governments and rights groups, the United Nations slammed it as a “clear violation” of human rights while celebrities led by actor George Clooney called for Brunei-owned hotels to be boycotted.

In a televised address, the all-powerful sultan made his first public comments about the furore and took the rare step of addressing criticism, saying there had been “many questions and misperceptions” regarding Shariah laws.

“Both the common law and the Shariah law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country,” he said, according to an official translation of his speech.

Some crimes in Brunei including murder and drug-trafficking were already punishable with death by hanging under the regular criminal code — which is enforced alongside the Shariah code — but no one has been executed for decades.

Hassanal said, “We have practised a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law. This will also be applied to cases under the (Shariah penal code), which provides a wider scope for remission.”

‘Doesn’t change anything’

But rights groups said the announcement on Sunday did not go far enough.

“It really doesn’t change anything,” Matthew Woolfe, founder of rights group The Brunei Project, told AFP.

“This announcement does nothing to address the many other human rights concerns about the (Shariah code).”

The maximum punishment for gay sex between men under the Shariah code is death by stoning, but perpetrators can also be sentenced to lengthy jail terms or caning. Women convicted of having sexual relations with other women face up to 40 strokes of the cane or a maximum 10-year jail term.

Whipping and jail terms, as well as the severing of limbs for theft, under the new code, were not affected by the sultan’s announcement. It was not clear how far other Shariah punishments would be enforced.

The sultan also vowed in his speech Brunei would ratify the United Nations convention against torture which it signed several years ago.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that “The entire law is a human rights-abusing monstrosity that should be scrapped. It’s a quaint but unrealistic idea that a temporary moratorium on the death penalty is worth something in a royal dictatorship where the sultan’s word is law.”

The sultan — one of the world’s wealthiest men, who has been on the throne over five decades — announced plans for the Shariah penal code in 2013.

The first section was introduced in 2014 and included less stringent penalties, such as fines or jail terms for offences including skipping Friday prayers, but the introduction of the harsher penalties was delayed after criticism.

Analysts say he is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials and shore up support among the country’s conservatives due to the waning fortunes of the oil-dependent economy, which has been ravaged by the recession in recent years.