Brunei’s already strict Islamic criminal code will enter an even tougher new stage next week with the introductions of laws mandating lengthy prison terms, whipping, and even execution for homosexual behavior. Brunei is set to become the first Asian country to punish homosexuality with the death penalty, as several Arab countries do.
Brunei began imposing sharia law with a three-stage process in 2014. The first stage criminalized Christmas celebrations, getting pregnant out of wedlock, and failing to attend Muslim prayer services. Homosexuality was also criminalized, but the penalty in Stage One of the sharia revolution was merely 10 years in prison.
The sultanate disregarded five years of criticism from international human rights groups and quietly issued court orders to proceed with Stage Two on April 3. Gays will be whipped, imprisoned for much longer sentences, and could be executed by stoning, although Brunei has recently been lax about actually carrying out death sentences.
Another perennial sharia favorite, cutting of the hands of thieves, is included in the upgraded legal code. According to Amnesty International, many of these harsh penalties with be applicable to children.
“Brunei must immediately halt its plans to implement these vicious punishments and revise its Penal Code in compliance with its human rights obligations. The international community must urgently condemn Brunei’s move to put these cruel penalties into practice,” Amnesty International researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard said on Wednesday.
Reuters reported on Monday that the new laws are being “fast-tracked” after a period of hesitation on the part of the sultanate. There has been little in the way of a formal announcement, and the prime minister’s office has not responded to media inquiries. This week’s outraged responses from human rights groups were based largely on researchers uncovering government documents ordering implementation of the new punishments to begin in April.
“We are trying to get pressure placed on the government of Brunei but realize there is a very short time frame until the laws take effect. It took us by surprise that the government has now given a date and is rushing through implementation,” said Australian activist Matthew Woolfe of The Brunei Project. His reaction suggests the fast track was chosen so that critics would be caught off guard.
Channel News Asia suggested on Wednesday that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah might be embracing hard line sharia law as an exercise in virtue-signaling, shoring up his Islamic bona fides after a lifetime of conspicuous consumption and some family scandals:
Brunei’s Sultan is no stranger to controversy at home – the monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a family feud with his brother Jefri over the latter’s alleged embezzlement of US$15 billion during his tenure as finance minister in the 1990s.
Court battles and investigations revealed salacious details of Jefri’s jetset lifestyle, including claims of a high-priced harem of foreign women and a luxury yacht he owned called “Tits”.
Human Rights Campaign director Ty Cobb called on the Trump administration to take a public stand against Brunei’s legal code:
We are facing a dangerous crisis as Brunei is close to implementing laws that impose state-sponsored torture and murder of LGBTQ people. It’s absolutely crucial that the international community speak out now and demand that the Sultan of Brunei stop these barbaric changes that threaten the lives of Brunei citizens. The Trump-Pence Administration must also immediately make clear that these outrageous human rights abuses will not be tolerated.
The Trump State Department expressed concerns about the direction of Brunei’s legal system in 2017, noting the laws criticized as anti-gay could technically impose death by stoning against heterosexual couples for engaging in “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” The State Department noted numerous reports of discrimination from gays and lesbians in Brunei, including intimidation by the police.