If a law described by the international community as “appalling” is passed but rarely enforced, is it still appalling?
Brunei, the Southeast Asian nation that recently implemented just such a law, is evidently hoping that the answer to that will somehow be no.
Earlier this month, gay sex and adultery became punishable by death by stoning in Brunei, a small but oil-rich state with a Muslim majority on the island of Borneo. Homosexuality has been illegal in Brunei since it was a British colony, but the new laws made it — and extramarital affairs — punishable by gruesome death.
This week, Brunei made the case to the European Union that it shouldn’t worry about death by stoning because such punishments would be quite rare.
In a letter and memo sent ahead of a European Parliament meeting on human rights, the Brunei mission wrote:
“The penal sentences for hadd -- stoning to death and amputation, imposed for offences of theft, robbery, adultery and sodomy have extremely high evidentiary threshold, requiring no less than two or four men of high moral standing and piety as witnesses -- to the exclusion of every form of circumstantial evidence, coupled with very high standard of proof of ‘no doubt at all,’ which goes further than the common law standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt.' The standards of piety of the male witnesses is extremely high that it is extremely difficult to find one in this day and age, to the extent that convictions of hadd may solely rest on confessions of the offender."
Another mitigating factor presented by Brunei: The lesser punishment of whipping can be carried out only by people of the same gender.
The European Union is unlikely to be sympathetic. It has noted that such punishments — no matter who carries them out — violate the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Brunei signed in 2015.
What’s more, the E.U. isn’t the only European institution that has expressed concern over Brunei’s new laws. On Wednesday, Aberdeen University in Scotland revoked the sultan’s honorary degree over the measures.
“The University of Aberdeen is proud of our foundational purpose of being open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others. The introduction by the Sultan of the new Penal Code is contrary to our strong commitment to the value of diversity and inclusion,” said university principal George Boyne.
A variety of companies, from a British TV awards show to the Financial Times, have also joined a boycott of hotels owned by Brunei, heeding a call from, among others, George Clooney. He said in late March, “Every single time we stay at, or take meetings at or dine at any of these nine hotels, we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery."