Last Phase of Sharia Law Implemented In Brunei

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(Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei) As of 3 April, 2019 the final elements of Sharia law passed back in 2014 come into force in Brunei, with particularly worrying consequences for women and LGBTIQ people.

Brunei became the first country in South-East Asia to introduce a nation-wide Sharia penal code in 2014. In the three phase implementation process, jail terms and punishments such as whipping for offences including indecency and failure to attend Friday prayers, as well as severing of limbs for robbery, have been introduced. The phase set to to be implemented this week is the last remaining phase, and foresees introduction of death by stoning for so-called sexual offences such as adultery and same sex relations, as well as public flogging as a punishment for abortion. Overall the provisions amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as violence, in particular increasing vulnerability for people already denied legal protections, such as victims of sexual assault, women, LGBTIQ people and religious minorities.

Prior to introduction of this law, same-sex relations, or “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” were already illegal in Brunei, punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment – a legal relic left over from British colonial rule. This provision will remain intact even with introduction of the Sharia based Penal Code, the application of which for so-called sodomy offences requires a higher burden of proof than the colonial-era law. Application of other provisions, however, in particular in relation to women, such as stricter dress codes and punishment for adultery or abortion, so-called honour crimes, will make conditions for women, including LBTI women, harsher and more restrictive in an already male-dominated society.

Ging Cristobal from the Philippines and Grace Poore from Malaysia, OutRight Action International's Program Coordinators for Asia and the Pacific Islands, commented:

“LGBTIQ people in Brunei are already forced to live secret lives, hiding their true identity, pretending to be someone they are not. The new penal code not only further criminalizes who they are, but prescribes the punishment of death through particularly cruel means – stoning, a practice which stands in stark opposition to basic human rights, and is recognized to amount to torture. Criminalizing LGBTIQ people and prescribing this form of punishment, even if it isn’t widely imposed, paints LGBTIQ people as less than human, makes them feel unsafe, and will undoubtedly increase discrimination, violence and harassment, while also forcing them to choose between being LGBTIQ and being Muslim. Other provisions in the law severely limit the human rights of women, including LBTI women, further entrenching women as lesser to men in an already male-dominated society.”

Brunei has come under harsh criticism regarding the implementation of this penal code by local and international human rights organizations, including OutRight, and the international community. On 1 April 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the Brunei Government to halt the entry into force of the remaining phase of implementation of the Penal Code. Numerous countries and public figures have called for a boycott of luxury hotels belonging to Brunei's leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. A statement from the Government of Brunei dated 30 March, confirmed that implementation of the last phase would go ahead as planned.

Maria Sjödin, Deputy Executive Director of OutRight Action International, commented:

“While there is nothing to indicate that a boycott will have any effect on the Sultan's decision to implement the Sharia based Penal Code, it is encouraging to see the international community, speak out against such blatant violations of the human rights of women, of LGBTIQ people, and anyone who doesn't fit the narrow margins of the acceptable according to this new law.”

Around 70 countries across the world still criminalize same-sex relations. Such laws have a severe effect on LGBTIQ people. Discrimination, harassment, and stigma all serve to hold LGBTQ people back from their full potential and, in turn, from contributing to national economic and social development. In recent years India, Angola, Seychelles and many others have shed these colonial-era relics and decriminalized homosexuality. Brunei stands out of sync with the global trend.