BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN • Brunei's Sultan called for Islamic teachings in the country to be strengthened as strict new syariah punishments, including death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, came into force yesterday.
The tough penal code in the tiny country on tropical Borneo island - ruled by the all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah - was fully implemented following years of delays.
The laws, which also include amputation of hands and feet for thieves, will make Brunei the first place in East or South-east Asia to have a syariah penal code at the national level, joining several mostly Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Rape and robbery are also punishable by death under the code and many of the new laws, such as capital punishment for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, apply to non-Muslims as well as Muslims.
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.
Governments have also weighed in, with the United States saying the punishments run counter to Brunei's "international human rights obligations".
In a public address to mark a special date in the Islamic calendar, the Sultan called for stronger Islamic teachings but did not mention the new penal code.
"I want to see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger," he said in the nationally televised speech at a convention centre near the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. "I would like to emphasise that the country of Brunei is a... country that always devotes its worship to Allah."
He said that he wanted the Muslim call to prayer to ring out in all public places, not just in mosques, to remind people of their Islamic duties. The Sultan, who has been on the throne for over five decades, also insisted that Brunei was a "fair and happy" country.
"Anyone who comes to visit this country will have a sweet experience, and enjoy the safe and harmonious environment," he said.
At the weekend, the Brunei government said in a statement that the new punishments would be enforced from yesterday.
The Sultan - who is one of the world's wealthiest men and lives in a vast, golden-domed palace - announced plans for the code in 2013.
The new laws make sex between men punishable by death by stoning. For women convicted of having sexual relations with other women, the maximum punishment is 40 strokes of the cane or a maximum 10-year jail term.
The first section of the code was introduced in 2014 and included less stringent penalties, such as fines or jail terms for offences including indecent behaviour or skipping Friday prayers.
Although most Muslim nations incorporate elements of syariah law in their legal systems, very few carry out the harsher punishments - known as hudud - which even Muslim scholars disagree on.
Some aspects of syariah law have been widely accepted - such as how it applies to banking - with even Western companies introducing Islamic finance products to attract Muslim customers.