WASHINGTON, October 23, 2013—The Sultan of Brunei announced the introduction of a new code of Islamic law on Tuesday. Established by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the wealthiest men in the world, the code will apply only to Muslims and will be go into force in six months. The announcement ignited serious criticism from human rights groups.
The new penal code includes punishments like severing of limbs for stealing, death by stoning for adultery and flogging for abortion, consumption of alcohol, and a range of other offenses.
Due to huge revenues from oil and gas, Brunei, a small sultanate on the island of Borneo, enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Asia, including free education and medical care.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, an absolute monarch whose family has controlled the country for the last 600 years, began calling for sharia criminal punishments as early as 1996.
Already following a stricter form of Islamic law than its neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, sale and consumption of alcohol is banned in Brunei. The Sultan has also imposed compulsory religious education from Muslim children and the closure of businesses during Friday prayers. Other religions are closely restricted, according to AFP.
As a former British protectorate, Brunei’s civil courts are based on British law. Until now Sharia courts in Brunei were limited to hearing cases of relating to family matters like inheritance and marriage.
Making up about 70 percent of Brunei’s 412,000 inhabitants, the new code will apply only to Muslims.
In an effort to ease national and international fears about the implementation of the new code, the government has in the past stated that Sharia courts will adhere to a high burden of proof and judges will be granted a large amount of discretion when applying punishment.
“Respect for basic civil and political rights is near zero in Brunei,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in an interview with AFP. “Brunei is showing its feudal characteristics as an 18th-century state rather than an important member of a regional Southeast Asian economic and social consensus in the 21st century,”
While not surprising, the turn toward stricter Sharia law may not be a favorable move for Brunei. Reuters reports that the tiny sultanate’s oil reserves are projected to run out within the next two decades. For years the government has implemented strategies to promote tourism, manufacturing and halal products, all of which may be threatened depending on international reaction to this change.
Addressing concerns at a conference announcing the new law, Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz, the country’s top Islamic scholar, said that law-abiding tourists will not avoid Brunei because of the new punishments.
“Do all potential tourists to Brunei plan to steal? If they do not, then what do they need to fear,” he said. “Believe me when I say that with our Sharia criminal law, everyone, including tourists, will receive proper protection.”
In a possible message to foreign investors, the Sultan, who has held power since 1967, also stated that the new code would not affect the government’s overall policies.
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