The announcement that the law will go into effect April 3 is “the outcome of a pretty rigorous process of figuring out how to implement a 2014 shariah penal code,” Brian Harding, deputy director and fellow of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an email. “The whole initiative is driven by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah who is seeking to make the country more culturally Islamic, at least in his vision.”
Homosexuality has been illegal in Brunei since the country was a British colony, but the new law, in effect, makes it not just illegal but also punishable by death, as it does extramarital affairs.
At the time of the announcement, the government website quoted the sultan as saying, “His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, in the [command], asserted that in carrying out the Laws of Allah, the nation does not expect other people to accept and agree with it, but that it would suffice if they just respect the nation in the same way that it also respects them.” And some have suggested that the laws, which were always supposed to be gradually rolled out, “got so much backlash” that the government “put [them] on hold until a time that nobody was paying attention,” Neela Ghoshal, a senior researcher of LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post.
But, on Thursday, the realization that the two provisions would be implemented in a matter of days was followed by international condemnation.
“To legalize such cruel and inhuman penalties is appalling of itself,” Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Amnesty International’s Brunei researcher, said in a statement.
“This new law violates the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It should be widely condemned,” tweeted Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany, who became the first openly gay spokesperson for a Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
“I call on the Sultanate of #Brunei to withdraw the death penalty by stoning [for] homosexual acts between consenting adults. The same goes for other countries which have the same cruel & inhuman laws. No one should be criminalized based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Sebastian Kurz, chancellor for Austria, tweeted.
Ghoshal noted that some Asian countries, which themselves do not have such laws on the books, have stayed quiet. “It would be wonderful … to hear Asian voices speaking out against this as well,” she said. “This is not a matter of East versus West.”
Whether the law going into effect on April 3 means that people will actually be stoned to death might be another matter.
“It is highly questionable whether the draconian laws will be implemented. Brunei has had a de facto ban on capital punishment and Brunei does care about its international image,” Harding wrote.
“However, even just having these laws on the books will not help its global image, in addition to being morally abysmal,” he added.
“The hope that we were hearing at the time is that people felt it was essentially for show and would not actually be implemented,” Ghoshal said. But “any political shift might mean it can be implemented at any time, even if that’s not the intention of the government enacting it.”