HONG KONG — The sultan of Brunei said his country would not impose the death penalty, appearing to back away from harsh punishments including death by stoning for gay sex and adultery under strict new laws that took effect last month.
Speaking Sunday in a televised address, his first comments since the laws were enacted amid significant international backlash, he noted that Brunei has had a “de facto moratorium” on the death penalty under common law.
This moratorium, he said, will also be extended to cases under the new sharia-influenced (Islamic law) penal code.
“I am aware that there are all sorts of questions and misconceptions on the implementation” of the laws, the sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, said. “For that, we have given clarification. We are conscious of the fact that these misconceptions may cause apprehension.”
The laws were met with swift condemnation when their latest phase took effect on April 3, implementing chilling punishments under the Islamic penal code after years of planning and preparation. Observers noted that the laws were incongruous with the Bruneian royal family’s reputation for wild partying and opulence and were indicative of the sultan’s desire to bring his country closer to more strict interpretations of Islamic law.
The United Nations called the laws draconian, and the move prompted calls for a boycott of Brunei-controlled hotels from Hollywood celebrities including George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres.
Western governments had been quietly lobbying Brunei to refrain from implementing the laws, which they said would complicate trade deals with the oil-rich sultanate, and they have urged Brunei to uphold international human rights standards. A State Department spokesman, speaking soon after the laws went into effect, said the United States “regularly communicate[s] with the government of Brunei regarding human rights and encourage[s] it to uphold its international commitments on human rights.”
In his Sunday speech, Bolkiah also added that Brunei will be ratifying the U.N. Convention against Torture. It is unclear how the ratification of that treaty would affect other punishments under the Islamic penal code, which also call for amputation of hands and feet for stealing. The new laws also apply to children and foreigners who are not Muslim.
The sultan, however, continued to stand by the laws, which he said were part of Brunei’s “religious obligation to God as an Islamic country.”
“We are sure that once these misconceptions have been clarified, the merit of the law will be evident,” he said.
Home to fewer than a half-million people, the tiny sultanate on the island of Borneo was not a comfortable place for the LGBT community even before the laws took effect. Homosexuality was punishable by jail terms of up to a decade, for example. Many in the community say it has been hard for them to express their concerns over the new rules for fear that they could be charged with apostasy.
Political opposition is virtually nonexistent in Brunei, where the sultan rules as head of state and serves as prime minister with full executive authority.