Brunei will become one of just a handful of nations where such punishments are enforced, and the first outside the Arab world and South Asia.
A member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Association of South-East Asian Nations, Brunei is one of 11 countries negotiating the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, an Obama administration priority.
Secretary of State John Kerry visited Brunei twice last year, and two weeks ago he congratulated the sultanate on its national day with a statement hailing “excellent cooperation” and a “robust relationship” with the U.S.
“The depth and value of this relationship was plain for me to see during my two visits to your wonderful ‘Abode of Peace’ last year,” he said, using a phrase that features in the sultanate’s official name, Brunei Darussalam.
Just two weeks after the most recent of those visits by Kerry, last October, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah unveiled his plans for the phased introduction of a shari’a penal code with effect from April.
He characterized the move as “part of the great history of our nation” in its 30th year of independence, one that would set the standard for other Islamic countries.
Last month the minister of religious affairs took an 18-member delegation to Saudi Arabia on a five-day visit to study how the kingdom implements its shari’a system, and over recent weeks government officials have been holding workshops for different sectors of society, explaining what they can expect.
The new code covers offenses including illicit sexual relations, theft, apostasy, the selling and consuming of alcohol, and other “acts contrary to Islamic beliefs.” One offense, “khalwat,” relates to unrelated people of the opposite sex being in close proximity, leading to suspicion that they are behaving immorally.
On the one hand, this means a non-Muslim will not have lesser legal standing in court than a Muslim, as happens in several Islamic states, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But it also means shari’a provisions will apply to non-Muslims even though they do not follow the Islamic faith.
So any non-Muslim who drinks liquor in a public place will be liable on conviction to up to two years’ imprisonment, an $8,000 fine, or both. Those same penalties apply to “any non-Muslim who sells, advertises, serves, offers, gives as a present or exhibits any liquor or intoxicating drink to a Muslim.”
Likewise, a non-Muslim viewed as being in too close proximity to an unrelated Muslim of the opposite sex faces the same penalty as a Muslim would – up to one year’s imprisonment, a $4,000 fine, or both.
More serious offenses, including adultery, rape and sodomy, carry the death penalty by stoning, and affect Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In a case of adultery between a married Muslim and a married non-Muslim, both can be punished by stoning to death, on the testimony of four witnesses.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) noted in a letter to the Brunei government in January that the sultanate has not carried out an execution since 1957, and expressed grave concern about the move to have capital offenses in the new code.
“It is important to emphasize that the use of stoning as a punishment, in any circumstance, violates the absolute prohibition of all forms of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including corporal punishment in international law,” the ICJ said.
‘Huge leap backwards’
Other areas covered by the new code:
--Theft is punishable by amputation of the right hand, if the property stolen exceeds a stipulated minimum value, and on the testimony of two credible witnesses apart from the victim.
--Insulting, mocking or denying the teachings of the Qur’an or the hadith (traditions of Mohammed) are offenses carrying punishments including 40 strokes of the cane and imprisonment of up to 30 years.
--Selling food, drink or tobacco for immediate consumption in a public place during times of Islamic fasting carries a prison term of up to one year and/or a $4,000 fine.
--The wearing of “indecent” clothing in public is forbidden and punishable. The code does not stipulate what this means, but in a report citing a senior Religious Affairs Ministry official the Brunei Times observed that “it has become commonplace for people to dress in revealing clothing including shorts.”
--Committing an act of “indecent behavior” in public carries imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of $2,000, or both. “An act is deemed indecent if it tarnishes the image of Islam, corrupts moral standards, causes negative influence or upsets eyewitnesses.” Deemed even more serious is the act of encouraging or organizing such behavior in others. That carries a two-year jail term and/or $8,000 fine.
The Brunei Times in an editorial late last month praised the sultan for the looming law changes and shrugged off what it called the “babbling” of critics, saying that most of them appeared to be “Internet scholars” who based their views on the “knowledge” they found on Google.
Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund, an aid agency supporting minority Christians in Islamic countries, called the move “not so much a retrograde step as a huge leap backwards into the past, reviving attitudes and practices that should have been consigned to history. It puts paid to Muslim arguments of being a religion of tolerance and peace.”
Located on the island of Borneo and ruled by the same family for more than 600 years, Brunei is smaller than Delaware, has a population of around 416,000 people, and enjoys the world’s sixth highest GDP per capita.