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Brunei: Islamic Law Adopted

(May 6, 2014) On April 30, 2014, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, announced that Sharia (Islamic) penal law would become effective in the country on May 1, under the Shari’ah Penal Code Order, 2013. In addition to this Order, amendments have been made to three other laws, the Islamic Religious Council Act, the Shari’ah Court Act, and the Shari’ah Court Classification Order, 2001. (Press Release, Prime Minister’s Office, 30.04.14 Implementation of the Shari’ah Penal Code Order, 2013 (Apr. 30, 2014).) Sharia law will be in force along with the existing civil penal code. According to Bolkiah, the country “will have two criminal justice systems working hand in hand.” (Julie Deisher, Brunei Becomes First East-Asian Country to Adopt Sharia, PAPER CHASE (May 2, 2014).)

Bolkiah justified the move to impose the Islamic penal code, arguing it was a type of special assistance from God, designed to protect the country from decadent, foreign influences. “It is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilise them to obtain justice,” he said. (Luke Hunt, Brunei Imposes Sharia Law, THE DIPLOMAT (May 2, 2014).)

Initially only the provisions that are punishable with fines or imprisonment will be implemented (Press Release, supra), though it has been reported that stoning, whipping, and amputation will eventually be included as punishments. (Deisher, supra.) These other potential punishments have raised concerns internationally, with the United Nations and human rights groups such as Amnesty International criticizing the move. According to Rupert Abbott, the Deputy Asia-Pacific Director of Amnesty International, “Brunei Darussalam’s new Penal Code legalizes cruel and inhuman punishments. It makes a mockery of the country’s international human rights commitments and must be revoked immediately.” (Brunei Darussalam: Revoke New Penal Code Allowing Stoning, Whipping and Amputation, Amnesty International website (Apr. 30, 2014).)

Although Brunei has had an effective moratorium on the use of capital punishment since 1957, the legislation is reported to include the death penalty for a broad range of crimes, including murder, robbery, rape, insult or defamation of the Prophet Mohammad or of the Quran and Hadith, blasphemy, and declaring oneself a prophet or a non-Muslim. In addition, it will apply to defendants who were under 18 years old when they offended. Further, Abbott says, the law “even permits stoning to death for acts which should not be considered ‘crimes’ in the first place, such as extramarital sexual relations and consensual sex between adults of the same gender.” (Id.; Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press Briefing Notes on Brunei Penal Code, (Apr. 11, 2014).)

According to Amnesty International, the new penal code contains other provisions that restrict freedom of thought and religion and that discriminate against women. (Brunei Darussalam: Revoke New Penal Code Allowing Stoning, Whipping and Amputation, supra.) The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also said that the code “contains provisions that violate the rights to freedom of religion, opinion, and expression.” The Office’s press statement issued in advance of the implementation of the code noted that it criminalizes “printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting, and distributing publications ‘contrary to Hukum Syara’, which literally translates as ‘contrary to the order of Shariah’ by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” (Press Briefing Notes on Brunei Penal Code, supra.)