BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (AFP) - Brunei's Sultan called for "stronger" Islamic teachings in the country on Wednesday (April 3) as tough new syariah laws, including death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, were due to come into force.
"I want to see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger," all-powerful Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said in a public address near the capital Bandar Seri Begawan.
But he failed to mention the controversial new penal code or announce it had entered force, as had been widely expected.
The Sultan, who has been on the throne of the oil-rich nation on Borneo island for 51 years, also said that Brunei was "fair and happy", in the face of growing global criticism about the new punishments.
"Anyone who comes to visit this country will have a sweet experience, and enjoy the safe and harmonious environment," the Sultan told an audience in a convention centre, in an address to mark a special date in the Islamic calendar.
The tough penal code in the tiny country on tropical Borneo island, a Muslim-majority former British protectorate with a population of around 400,000, is fully coming 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 South-east Asia to have a syariah 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 syariah "aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals".
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 penalties such as fines or jail terms for offences including indecent behaviour, failure to attend Friday prayers, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
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.
US joins chorus of criticism
The United States on Tuesday criticised Brunei's decision to implement hudud and urged it to ratify and implement the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
"Brunei's decision to implement Phases Two and Three of the Syariah Penal Code and associated penalties runs counter to its international human rights obligations, including with respect to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.
Oscar-winning actor Clooney has called for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by Brunei, including the Beverly Hills Hotel, because of the country's plans to impose the punishments.
Mr Palladino said: "We continue to encourage Brunei to ratify and implement the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which it signed in 2015, and to sign, ratify, and implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights."