Despite widespread international criticism, Brunei on Wednesday introduced new Islamic laws that make adultery, abortion and gay sex punishable by death by stoning.
Human rights organizations and governments — including the U.S. — have labeled the decision “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
The new rules were instituted by the powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has held power for more than five decades in the tiny Southeast Asian country and is believed to be one of the world’s richest men. He defied the international condemnation, saying Brunei is a “fair” country that was “safe and harmonious” for visitors.
“I want to see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger,” Bolkiah said in a televised address Wednesday.
Both Muslims and non-Muslims will be affected by the new laws, which introduced the death penalty for acts such as rape, adultery, sodomy, robbery, and insult or defamation of the Prophet Muhammad.
While men engaging in gay sex face the death penalty, lesbian sex carries a different penalty of 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in jail. Children who have reached puberty and are convicted of these offenses can receive the same punishments as adults, according to Human Rights Watch, while younger children could be subjected to whipping.
The laws are the second phase of the Sultan’s plan to introduce harsher Islamic laws to the country, which has a population of just 420,000. He initially introduced Shariah law in 2014, giving the country a dual legal system with both Shariah and Common Law. That change was met with international criticism, and the delay in implementing the second phase of the laws is seen as an attempt to wait for attention surrounding the legislation to die down.
“Brunei’s new penal code is barbaric to the core, imposing archaic punishments for acts that shouldn’t even be crimes,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Sultan Hassanal should immediately suspend amputations, stoning, and all other rights-abusing provisions and punishments.”
Organizations such as the U.N. and the EU, together with countries like Germany, France and the U.S., have all slammed the new laws.
Earlier this week, the U.N. called for the sultan to reconsider introducing the new laws, saying they would “enshrine in legislation cruel and inhuman punishments that seriously breach international human rights law – including death by stoning.” And on Tuesday State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement that Brunei’s decision “runs counter to its international human rights obligations, including with respect to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John, and Ellen DeGeneres have joined a campaign to boycott nine luxury hotels owned by the sultan, including the Beverly Hills and Bel-Air hotels in Los Angeles.
Some experts have said that the chances of the death penalty being imposed for acts such as gay sex are small, given that a confession or witnesses are needed to get a conviction.
But for gay men in Brunei, the new laws are causing them to fear for their safety.
“You wake up and realize that your neighbors, your family or even that nice old lady that sells prawn fritters by the side of the road doesn't think you're human, or is OK with stoning,” a Bruneian gay man told the BBC.
Cover image: Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah delivers a speech on July 5, 2017, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)