Brunei sultan backtracks on death penalty for gay sex

AFP
Brunei's sultan has announced death by stoning for gay sex and adultery will not be enforced after a global backlash.
AFP
AFP

 In this file photo taken on April 3, 2019, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah delivers a speech during an event in Bandar Seri Begawan. 

Brunei's sultan has announced death by stoning for gay sex and adultery will not be enforced after a global backlash, but critics yesterday called for harsh sharia laws to be abandoned entirely.

In a speech late on Sunday, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said a moratorium on capital punishment that already applies to Brunei’s regular criminal code would also extend to its new sharia code, which includes death by stoning for various crimes.

The code, which also punishes theft with the amputation of hands and feet, fully came into force last month in the small sultanate on Borneo island, making it the only country in East or Southeast Asia with sharia law at the national level.

The move 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 the sharia laws.

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

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

Scope for remission

Hassanal said that “we have practiced 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 (sharia penal code), which provides a wider scope for remission.”

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

“It really doesn’t change anything,” Matthew Woolfe, founder of rights group The Brunei Project, said. “This announcement does nothing to address the many other human rights concerns about the (sharia code).”

The maximum punishment for gay sex between men under the sharia 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 severing of limbs for theft, under the new code were not affected by the sultan’s announcement.

It was not clear how far other sharia punishments would be enforced.

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

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