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Brunei Won't Enforce the Death Penalty for Homosexuality Following Global Backlash

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has announced that Brunei will not execute people for being gay, despite the controversial anti-LGBTQ laws that were rolled out last month.

by Gavin Butler
06 May 2019, 3:15am

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei, and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Image via Flickr user bvi4092, CC licence 2.0 (L) and Wikimedia (R)

Brunei has announced it will not impose the death penalty for people found “guilty” of homosexuality, following global backlash over the sultanate’s decision to roll out the controversial interpretation of Sharia law last month. The changes to the penal code, implemented on April 3rd, meant that being gay in the southeast Asian nation was officially a crime punishable by death, with offenders facing the prospect of capital punishment in the form of state-sanctioned whipping and stoning. Now, under international pressure, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has extended a moratorium on the death penalty, the ABC reports.

In a televised address marking the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan this weekend, Bolkiah—who acts as Brunei’s Prime Minister—said he was "aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation" of the new laws, as rolled out under the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO). "As evident for more than two decades, we have practiced a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law,” he declared. “This will also be applied to cases under the SPCO which provides a wider scope for remission."

In other words: while the law stipulates that anyone caught engaging in homosexuality in Brunei is to face capital punishment, such measures will never be carried out in practice. Similarly, while executions have long been permitted as punishment for crimes such as premeditated murder and drug trafficking in the country, none have actually taken place since 1957.

First adopted by Sultan Hassanal Bolki in 2014, the SPCO has been applied in phases over the past five years as part of a nationwide implementation of Sharia law. Earlier legislative changes made it a crime to have a child out of wedlock, established flogging as a punishment for abortion, and amputation as a punishment for theft—and Brunei has typically defended its right to implement such laws. Bolkiah’s announcement of the moratorium over the weekend marks a rare response to criticism from the wealthy sultan, and comes in the wake of searing backlash from celebrities and human rights activists around the world.

Everyone from George Clooney to the United Nations have condemned the measures since they were announced earlier this year, while Amnesty International publicly pressured the country to “revise its Penal Code in compliance with its human rights obligations.” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned that the “draconian" laws would “mark a serious setback for human rights protections for the people of Brunei if implemented", and celebrities including Clooney and Elton John called for boycotts on both Brunei itself and Brunei-owned luxury hotel groups across the US, UK, France, and Italy.

That backlash appears to have had some effect, prompting Bolkiah to “clear up… [the] questions and misperceptions” surrounding the laws and officially extend the moratorium on the death penalty.

"Both the common law and the Syariah [sharia] law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country," he declared in his speech yesterday. "They are also crucial in protecting the morality and decency of the country as well as the privacy of individuals."

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