Thu, May 01, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Brunei introducing new Shariah law code today

PHASES:The first step will cover indecent behavior and illegitimate pregnancies. Step two will cover theft and robbery. Death by stoning will be introduced next year

AFP, BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah delivers a speech yesterday in Bandar Seri Begawan during the official ceremony marking the implementation of Shariah law in Brunei.

Photo: AFP

The sultan of oil-rich Brunei announced that tough Islamic criminal punishments would be introduced today, pushing ahead with plans that have sparked rare domestic criticism of the fabulously wealthy ruler and international condemnation.

“I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the almighty to announce that tomorrow, Thursday May 1, 2014, will see the enforcement of Shariah law phase one, to be followed by the other phases,” the absolute monarch said in a royal decree yesterday.

The Shariah penalties — which will eventually include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning — triggered condemnation on social media sites in the sultanate earlier this year.

Confusion has swirled around implementation following the unexplained postponement of the expected start date on Tuesday last week that raised questions over whether the sultan was hesitating.

However, the 67-year-old sultan said the move was “a must” under Islam, dismissing “never-ending theories” that Shariah punishments were cruel, in comments clearly aimed at detractors.

“Theory states that Allah’s law is cruel and unfair, but Allah himself has said that his law is indeed fair,” he said.

The sultan has for years discussed introducing the Shariah penal code, as he warned of rising crime in his sleepy realm and pernicious outside influences such as the Internet. He announced the implementation plans in October last year.

Situated on Borneo, which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia, the small state already practiced a relatively conservative form of Islam compared to its Muslim-majority neighbors, banning the sale of alcohol and heavily restricting other religions.

Muslim ethnic Malays, who make up about 70 percent of the population, are broadly supportive of the move by the sultan. However, some Malays and non-Muslim citizens privately express unease.

About 15 percent of Brunei’s people are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.

Earlier this year, many users of Brunei’s active social media — the only avenue for public criticism of authorities — denounced the penal code as barbaric and out of step with the gentle Bruneian national character.

Theories abound as to why the sultan is pushing Shariah, ranging from a monarch becoming more religious as he ages, to a desire to increase social controls in the face of a changing world.

He has called Islam a “firewall” against globalization.

The initial phase beginning today is to introduce punishments including fines or jail terms for offenses ranging from indecent behavior, failure to attend Friday prayers and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Officials have said a second phase covering crimes such as theft and robbery will start later this year and will include more stringent penalties such as severing of limbs and flogging.

Late next year, punishments such as death by stoning for offenses, including sodomy and adultery, will be introduced.

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

The UN’s human rights office said earlier last month it was “deeply concerned” by the move, adding that penalties such as stoning are classified under international law as “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

It said UN studies have shown that women are more likely to be sentenced to death by stoning, due to entrenched discrimination and stereotyping.

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