Sultan of Brunei introduces tough Islamic punishments

The Sultan of Brunei on Tuesday introduced tough Islamic punishments including death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, making his oil-rich realm the first East Asian country to do so at the national level.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah — one of the world’s wealthiest men — said a new Sharia Penal Code in the works for years was officially introduced Tuesday and would “come into force six months hereafter and in phases”, sparking sharp criticism from rights groups.

Under the code, which applies only to Muslims, punishments can include stoning to death for adultery, severing of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to alcohol consumption.

“By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled,” the sultan, 67, said in a speech.

An absolute monarch whose family has tightly controlled the tiny, languid realm of 400,000 people for six centuries, the sultan first called in 1996 for sharia criminal punishments.

“Brunei is showing its feudal characteristics as an 18th-century state rather than an important member of a regional Southeast Asian economic and social consensus in the 21st century,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

He called the legal change “rights-abusing, abhorrent, and absolutely unjustifiable”.

Brunei already practices a brand of Islam that is relatively conservative compared to its Muslim neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, banning the sale and public consumption of alcohol and closely restricting other religions.

But sharia has been a rare point of contention in a land where the sultan’s word is unquestioned, with many Bruneians quietly grumbling that the concept is out of step with the affluent country’s laid-back ethnic Malay society.

The monarch himself has acknowledged concerns over sharia in recent years as the code was being drafted.

Compatible with Malay culture?

But he has repeatedly advocated strengthening the insular nation’s Muslim roots in the face of potentially harmful outside influences including the Internet, while guarding against radicalism.

However, Brunei was likely to apply sharia law “very, very softly” in keeping with its peaceful national character, said Gibril Fouad Haddad, a visiting fellow at Brunei’s Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies.

“Is it merely symbolic? I don’t know,” he said.

The government has previously promised to apply an extremely high burden of proof with sharia and said judges would have wide discretion in applying it, comments aimed at easing public fears.

“It seems almost incompatible with Malay culture, which is peace-loving,” said Tuah Ibrahim, 57, driver of a boat taxi in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan.

He said sharia can be acceptable if proportionate to the crime, but adds: “I can’t imagine our country turning into somewhere like Saudi Arabia.”

Neither of East Asia’s two other Muslim-majority countries — Malaysia and Indonesia — impose sharia criminal punishments, but the Indonesian special region of Aceh does.

Nearly 70 percent of Brunei’s people are Muslim Malays while about 15 percent are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.

Brunei already has a dual system combining civil courts based on British law — the sultanate was a British protectorate until 1984 — and sharia-compliant courts handling marital, inheritance, and other low-key issues.

In his speech, the sultan appeared to try to assuage any international concerns, saying the sharia change “does not in any way change our policies … as a member of the family of nations”.

The monarch’s wealth — estimated at $20 billion by Forbes magazine two years ago — has become legendary amid reports of a vast collection of luxury vehicles and gold-bedecked palaces.

The monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a sensational family feud between Hassanal and his younger brother Jefri Bolkiah over the latter’s alleged embezzlement of 15 billion dollars during his tenure as finance minister in the 1990s.

Court battles and exposes revealed salacious details of Jefri’s un-Islamic jet-set lifestyle, including allegations of a high-priced harem of Western paramours and a luxury yacht he owned called “Tits”.