Brunei will not enforce death penalty for gay sex

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah extends a moratorium on the death penalty to incoming legislation prohibiting gay sex, seeking to temper a global backlash led by celebrities such as George Clooney and Elton John.
Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said there were "many questions and misperceptions" about the implementation of the laws.
Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said there were "many questions and misperceptions" about the implementation of the laws.

Move follows global backlash, but critics say several other harsh punishments remain on the books

HONG KONG • Brunei has said it will not carry out executions by stoning for people convicted of adultery and gay sex, following widespread international protests over the brutality of such penalties.

But critics of the country's newly enacted Islamic laws said several other harsh punishments remain on the books, including whipping and amputation, and they have called for continued opposition until the laws are completely revised.

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said on Sunday that his country had gone decades without carrying out the death penalty, and it would continue its de facto moratorium on executions despite the new punishments codified last month under a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

Some crimes already command the death penalty in Brunei, including premeditated murder and drug trafficking, but no executions have been carried out since 1957.

The United States, Britain, France, Germany and other countries protested against the law, as did several celebrities, including George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John.

Luxury hotels owned by the Sultan, including The Dorchester in London and The Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, faced calls for boycotts.

Previous international criticism led Brunei to delay implementation of the harshest provisions of its syariah law after it was announced in 2013, but the country then moved ahead with them this year.

NO CHANGE

As evident for more than two decades, we have practised a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law. This will also be applied to cases under the SPCO (Syariah Penal Code Order).

 BRUNEI SULTAN HASSANAL BOLKIAH, in comments on Sunday at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In comments on Sunday at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Sultan said there were "many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation" of the laws.

"As evident for more than two decades, we have practised a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law," he said. "This will also be applied to cases under the SPCO," he added, referring to the Syariah Penal Code Order.

But his brief comments did not specifically address other severe punishments in the laws, including whipping women convicted of lesbian sex and amputating a hand or foot for theft.

"The reality is, this is all about trying to abate the international pressure coming on Brunei," said Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. The Sultan "is obviously realising there is a larger opposition to this law out in the international community and the Brunei brand is taking a hard hit".

The Sultan, 72, has ruled Brunei since 1967. The sultanate has a population of about 430,000 and sits on the north side of the island of Borneo. Vast oil resources have made the Sultan worth tens of billions of dollars, and he lives in a 1,788-room palace.

"On the surface it seems like good news," said Mr Matthew Woolfe, the Australia-based founder of human rights group The Brunei Project. "(But) the fact that these laws are not being repealed is still of concern to us," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "There is nothing stopping the Brunei government from lifting the moratorium at any time."

Said Mr Ryan Silverio of the Asean Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Caucus in Manila: "The Sultan's statement opens a window for dialogue."

He added: "Political and economic pressure must be complemented with meaningful dialogue with the government and, more importantly, ordinary people in Brunei."

NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2019, with the headline 'Brunei will not enforce death penalty for gay sex'. Print Edition | Subscribe