Brunei wants to stone more people to death, and it’s about to bring into force a new penal code provision that would allow it to do just that.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced in October of 2013 that he would move Brunei, a predominantly Muslim country, toward adopting Islamic Sharia law within the next six months. While Sharia was previously implemented for what are essentially family court disputes, the country officially had secular laws though many of those laws gave great deference to Sharia anyway.
At the time of announcing this change, the Sultan said that Sharia law would only be applied to Muslims. However, the United Nations and international human rights bodies feel that the law change will likely affect all of Brunei’s citizens, if not immediately then over time.
Making it a Crime to be Gay or to Insult Islam
The penal code change would make consensual same-sex sexual encounters a crime punishable by stoning. Homosexual “acts,” and by extension homosexuality, have long been a crime in Brunei. At the moment, though, someone convicted under the penal code can only serve a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Homosexuals are not the only group to be targeted by this law change, however. The revised penal code would proscribe the death penalty for the following (not an exhaustive list but one designed to give a good overview):
insulting any verses of the Quran and/or the Hadith
declaring that you are not a Muslim (apostasy)
While a lot of media attention has focused on how this penal code change would impact gay people, and for good reason, the penal code also seems particularly malignant to women’s rights, something that the International Commission of Jurists has already noted. Writing in commentary made back in January while the change was still being considered, the ICJ said that because of how a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam privileges men, women would therefore be “more [at] risk of receiving this penalty because they are most likely to be found guilty of adultery or having engaged in extra-marital sexual relations.”
The penal code would also stand to further marginalize different faiths. Brunei has a strong Christian minority (estimates suggest about 10 percent of the country’s 420,000 population). Non-Muslims and particularly Christians have faced increasing hostility in recent years, as well as disenfranchisement in the form of not being able to openly talk about or teach about their own faith, and even blatant and sometimes violent persecution. There is a fear that this kind of persecution could be exacerbated should the revised code be adopted.
While other eastern Asian countries do also use Sharia, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, they do so only for domestic matters like custody and marriage and at least claim to keep their national laws secular. Brunei will become the first country in the area then to adopt Sharia on a national, pervasive scale, and there are wider fears that this could start a trend.
The penal code changes are set to come into force on April 22. At this time it is unclear how strictly Brunei wishes to apply this death penalty provision as the country actually has a longstanding moratorium on using the death penalty where it is permissible in existing law. Yet the move toward further legalizing and indeed broadening religiously motivated capital punishment has concerned the United Nations enough that it has issued a strong rebuke and a call for Brunei to hold off on the changes:
“Application of the death penalty for such a broad range of offenses contravenes international law,” Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is quoted as saying. “Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited.”
The death penalty for same-sex sexual acts is also being treated as particularly egregious as it appears to draw from the same well of animus driving many African nations toward further criminalizing their LGBT populations. The UN notes that this alone contravenes a number of human rights standards, including guarantees on privacy and equality under the law.