Brunei yet to implement harsher syariah penalties

To date, Brunei has implemented only the first phase of its syariah laws, which apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims.
To date, Brunei has implemented only the first phase of its syariah laws, which apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims. ST FILE PHOTO

The tiny, oil-rich sultanate of Brunei has a laid-back air, with its tree-lined roads and modern buildings. With the onset of Ramadan, it can be even more subdued.

Restaurants and eateries are banned from serving food to diners - Muslim as well as non-Muslim - during the day but takeaways are allowed. Public consumption of food is illegal. Non-Muslims can eat in their offices and homes.

"But even with the ruling, I don't get the feeling that people will immediately report you for eating in public. I had a meal at the beach. There weren't many people (around) but none of them threatened to report me and just went about their daily tasks," a local resident told The Straits Times.

Foreign media, by and large, ignore Brunei and when reports do emerge, they tend to focus on the wealthy royal family. But it grabbed media attention around the world in May last year when it became the first country in the region to introduce the Syariah Penal Code.

The code provided for harsh punishment for many acts considered heinous in Islam, including sodomy and adultery. The laws were to be implemented in three phases to allow for the establishment of syariah criminal courts and training of officers.

The first phase, introduced on May 1, 2014, included fines, imprisonment or both for eating, drinking or smoking during fasting hours, skipping Friday prayers for men and giving birth out of wedlock. So far, fewer than than 20 people have been convicted, mostly for smoking during fasting hours and for khalwat (close proximity between unmarried couples), according to locals. All the offenders were fined.

But the second phase, which allows for whipping and the amputation of limbs, has yet to be implemented. "It has been delayed until further notice," an official from the Ministry of Religious Affairs told The Straits Times.

The third and final phase of syariah law, scheduled to begin next May, allows for the stoning of those found guilty of sodomy and adultery.

The laws apply to all, including non-Muslims, who make up 17 per cent of the population of 423,000.

Bishop Cornelius Sim, of the Catholic Church, hopes things stay as they are. "The people of Brunei are very kind, generous and hospitable. We live harmoniously with everyone," he says. "And we hope the status quo does not change."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline Brunei yet to implement harsher syariah penalties. Subscribe