Brunei announcement on controversial syariah law expected today

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (AFP) - The Sultan of Brunei is expected to make an announcement on Wednesday on his plans to introduce tough Islamic criminal punishments that have been criticised by the United Nations.

The syariah law penalties - which would be phased in over time and would eventually include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning - have sparked rare domestic criticism of the Sultan and an April 22 implementation was postponed without explanation.

The authorities have said there will be an announcement on Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's plans for syariah on Wednesday. It is expected in the morning.

An official told Brunei media last week that the postponement was delayed "due to unavoidable circumstances". He did not explain or give a new date.

The 67-year-old sultan - one of the world's wealthiest men - has warned of pernicious foreign influences such as the Internet and indicated he intends to place more emphasis on Islam in the conservative Muslim country.

He has also touted the harsher punishments as a way to address what he has called rising social ills including crime.

Malays have been broadly supportive of the move by their father-figure Sultan.

But he faced a backlash earlier this year on the country's social media, with many users calling the punishments a barbaric step backwards.

The new criminal code will phase in punishments including execution by stoning for offences such as sodomy and adultery, severing of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to alcohol consumption.

Experts do not expect the sensitive legal change to be halted.

Brunei currently has a dual-track legal system of civil courts along with syariah-compliant courts handling non-criminal issues such as marital and inheritance cases.

The United Nations' human rights office said earlier in April it was "deeply concerned", adding that penalties such stoning are classified under international law as "torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".

Nearly 70 per cent of Brunei's 400,000 people are Muslim Malays while about 15 per cent are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.

Officials have said syariah cases would require an extremely high burden of proof and judges would have wide discretion to avoid syariah punishments.