Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah at the 34th National Day celebrations in February 2018. Photo by Ahim Rani/Reuters
Next week, the tiny sultanate of Brunei become the first country in Southeast Asia to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. The change is part of a nationwide implementation of the Sharia law that was first announced in 2014. At the time, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said: “The decision to implement the (penal code) is not for fun but is to obey Allah’s command as written in the Quran.”Originally the Sultan, who is also Brunei’s prime minister, declared that the legal changes would be gradually implemented in three phases. Under the first phase of the law that was implemented on May 2014, individuals who have committed the "crime" of having a child out of wedlock, failing to attend Friday prayer, and are seen to be promoting any form of belief other than Islam, will be subjected to an Islamic court and could face imprisonment or fines.
Brunei was supposed to implement the second phase, that includes whipping and mutilations for Muslims found guilty of alcohol consumption and theft, in 2015, and the final phase in 2016. However, following massive global backlash to the decision, Sultan Bolkiah decided to delay the implementation of the remaining two phases.Now, five years later, the sultanate plans to proceed with the violent changes. Beginning April 3, those found guilty of same-sex relations, adultery, sodomy, rape, and blasphemy, will be whipped and stoned to death. Out of Brunei’s total population of 400,000, 67 percent are Muslim and therefore subject to the Sharia law. But since the first phase of Sharia law applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims, it looks like no one will be exempt from the rule.The news has been condemned around the world, as it will be a major violation of international human rights. Brunei has signed the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but it was never ratified. This may be a platform used by activists to get the international community to address the matter.According to Matthew Woolfe, founder of the human rights group The Brunei Project, the government did not make any public announcements regarding the change and it only came to light this week. With limited time left before the full implementation, efforts to rally support from the public will be a challenge.“We are trying to get pressure placed on the government of Brunei but realise there is a very short time frame until the laws take effect," Woolfe told Reuters. "It took us by surprise that the government has now given a date and is rushing through implementation."Recently, Indonesia has also come under scrutiny for the cruel treatment of its LGBTQ members. Its province of Aceh is the only place in the country that can legally enforce Sharia law, and on multiple accounts, it has been used to publicly cane gay men in front of cheering crowds. Members of the LGBTQ community were also arrested in a series of raids including nightlife spots, hotels and private residences.With only days away until Sharia rule becomes law, human rights activists are now clamoring for support to halt Brunei from finalising the decision.Correction 3/28: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Brunei is the first country in Asia to punish homosexuality with death penalty. We regret this mistake.