Brunei introduces death by stoning for adultery, gay sex

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Brunei on Wednesday is to introduce harsh new sharia laws, including death by stoning for adultery and gay sex, despite a storm of global criticism from politicians, celebrities and rights groups.

The tough penal code in the tiny country on tropical Borneo island – ruled by the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah – will fully come into force following years of delays.

The laws, which also include amputation of hands and feet for thieves, will make Brunei the first country in East or Southeast Asia to have a sharia penal code at the national level, joining several mostly Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia.

The decision to push ahead with the punishments has sparked alarm around the world, with the United Nations labelling them “cruel and inhumane” and celebrities, led by actor George Clooney and pop star Elton John, calling for Brunei-owned hotels to be boycotted.

But the sultan shows no sign of backing down, and the Muslim-majority country issued a statement at the weekend insisting that Brunei “enforces its own rule of law” and sharia “aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals”.

The sultan is due to attend a public event Wednesday, and may make an announcement related to the implementation of the laws.

The sultan – who is one of the world’s wealthiest men and lives in a vast, golden-domed palace – announced plans for the penal code in 2013 and the first phase was introduced the following year.

This included less stringent penalties, such as fines or jail terms for offences including indecent behaviour, failure to attend Friday prayers, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

A series of well-known figures have lined up to add to their names to the chorus of condemnation, including former US vice president Joe Biden and actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said: “This kind of law doesn’t belong in the 21st century. It’s going to be something that will turn Brunei into a human rights pariah.”

The sultan, who is the world’s second-longest reigning monarch, is unlikely to change course, however. He first called for the penal code in the late 1990s and it appears to enjoy broad support in the former British protectorate of about 400,000 people.

Analysts say he is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials and shore up support among the country’s conservatives due to the waning fortunes of the oil-dependent economy, which has been ravaged by recession in recent years.

It is also unclear whether death by stoning will actually be implemented, as a high burden of proof is needed to hand down the punishment and Brunei has not executed anyone for decades.