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United Nations condemns Brunei for calling out the death sentence for gay sex

The UN condemned Brunei this week for the legislation of the punishment of whipping for theft and stoning to death for the acts of sodomy, adultery, and rape.

The kingdom, with a Muslim-majority population of around 400,000, first adopted these elements of Islamic law in 2014, and they have been rolled out in phases since then. However, homosexuality has been illegal in Brunei since British colonial rule, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. 

One day after the announcement by the Sultan two UN agencies, UNAIDS and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), made statements condemning the human rights abuse.

“New criminal laws in Brunei that impose the death penalty for same-sex relationships, adultery and childbirth out of marriage, “breach international human rights norms”, and should be suspended or repealed”

In two separate statements UNFPA chief stated that: “Every person, without any distinction on any grounds, has an equal right to live free from violence, persecution, discrimination and stigma of any kind.” 

The Executive Director of UNAIDS “strongly” urged Brunei to “suspend or repeal the amendments to the Shariah Penal Code”, which are based on an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, offering UNAIDS’ support to “ensure that laws are grounded in human rights, based on evidence and protect the most vulnerable”.

Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888 and a British dependency in 1905 gaining independence in 1984 with the two countries still enjoying strong ties. As a former British colony, the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, continues to be supported by the UK. After a 1962 coup, that was suppressed by the British, there is a contingent of Gurkhas based in the country. The Sultan pays for the troops’ expenses in a defence agreement which is renewed every five years. As It is the only significant British military base in southeast Asia, it has great strategic importance.

A press statement from the Prime Minister’s office stated:

“Brunei Darussalam is a sovereign Islamic and fully independent country and, like all other independent countries, enforces its own rule of laws. Brunei Darussalam has always been practising a dual legal system, one that is based on the Sariah Law and the other on Common Law.”

In fully implementing the Shariah Penal Code Order (SPCO) 2013 from 3rd April 2019, both systems will continue to run in parallel to maintain peace and order and preserve religion, life, family and individuals regardless of gender, nationality, race and faith.

The Shariah Law, apart from criminalizing and deterring acts that are against the teachings of Islam, it also aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race.

As well as the afore-mentioned punishment and death regarding theft, sodomy, adultery and rape there are other areas that this legislation will cover. Such as apostates, or those who abandon Islam, could also face the death penalty with public floggings for women who receive abortions. Criminal offences range from trying to “persuade, tell or encourage” Muslim children under 18 to follow another religion. Fines or jail sentences for less severe punishments include for indecent behaviour, failure to attend Friday prayers, and for pregnancies out of wedlock.

Capital punishment has been a part of Brunei’s legal system for years and yet the country has not carried out a state execution since 1957, so at this stage it remains unclear whether the authorities will introduce the legislation.   

So why is the Sultan, who has supported these penal laws since the 1990s, reacting now to these legal changes? Some political analysts claim that it might be due to a hard recession that has affected the oil-rich country. The Sultan could therefore be trying to solidify his support base by appealing to the hard-line Muslim supporters. 

Yet it is hard to know exactly what the majority of the people in Brunei think about the proposed legislation as public criticism of the Sultan, who is one of the richest men in the world and is the world’s second-longest reigning monarch as well being the prime minister, or his policies is extremely rare due to the tight control that he has over the country.

International outcry against the legislation has come from celebrities like Elton John, Ellen Degeneres and George Clooney. Clooney has called for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Company.

In a statement Clooney condemned the legislation saying:

“Every single time we stay at, or take meetings at or dine at any of these nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery”.

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