Starting today, being gay in Brunei will be a crime punishable by death. Individuals found guilty of committing adultery, sodomy, rape, and blasphemy could also face death by whipping or stoning.
The changes to the country’s penal code were originally announced by Sultan Hassanal Bolki in 2014 as part of a nationwide implementation of Sharia law that were set to unfold over three years. Early phases of the rollout 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. Sharia law mostly applies to the country’s Muslim community—who make up roughly 66 percent of the 400,000 strong population.
Backlash to the changes have been wide reaching: Amnesty International called the penalties “cruel” and “vicious”, and pressured the country to “revise its Penal Code in compliance with its human rights obligations.” In a statement, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned the “draconian" laws would “mark a serious setback for human rights protections for the people of Brunei if implemented".
She also flagged that international law dictated that the death penalty can only be implemented for crimes of murder and intentional killing.
The US State Department echoed these concerns, saying they believe “some of the punishments in the law appear inconsistent with international human rights obligations." Individual politicians such as Australian Senator Penny Wong and UK Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt also shared their concerns for the residents of Brunei on social media.
Most publicly, celebrities including George Clooney and Elton John have called for boycotts on the country and Brunei-owned luxury hotel groups across the US, UK, France, and Italy.
Brunei isn’t the first country to implement such laws, but it is the first in Southeast Asia to do so. Homosexuality is also punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania and Sudan among others, although UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told AlJazeera that it doesn’t appear any gay residents of those countries have faced capital punishment recently. The last execution carried out in Brunei for any crime was in 1957.
Despite the global outrage, a statement from the Prime Minister over the weekend stressed that the country has no plans to walk back the new laws. In response, the government website stated that the Sultan, who has been in power for 51 years and is one of the world’s wealthiest people, doesn’t “expect other people to accept and agree with it, but that it would suffice if they just respect the nation in the same way that it also respects them".
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