Brunei says it won't enforce death penalty for gay sex

  • Published
Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is pictured in Papua New Guinea in November 2018Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The speech is the first time Brunei's ruler has responded to global pressure over the new laws

Brunei has backtracked on enforcing laws introduced last month that would have made sex between men and adultery punishable by stoning to death.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on Sunday extended a moratorium on the death penalty to cover the new legislation.

The rethink follows global outcry over the laws, including boycotts and celebrity protests.

While still on the statute books for some crimes, no executions have been carried out in Brunei since 1957.

Last month Brunei rolled out a strict new interpretation of Islamic laws, or Sharia.

In a speech, the sultan said he was aware there had been "many questions and misperceptions" regarding the implementation of the legislation, called Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO).

While saying that a moratorium on the death penalty would be applied to the SPCO he also defended the new rules, saying their "merit" would become clear.

The speech marks the first time the country's ruler has spoken publicly about the legislation since their introduction.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland said she was "delighted the death penalty has been removed and that the de facto moratorium which has been in place for more than two decades, will also cover the SPCO".

Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei and punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Muslims make up about two-thirds of the country's population of 420,000.

What are the laws?

The small South-East Asian nation first introduced Sharia law in 2014, giving it a dual legal system with both Sharia and Common Law.

The first phase covered crimes punishable by prison sentences and fines.

Media caption,

"As a kid... we were taught the stones should not be too big"

The laws introduced on 3 April marked the next phase of the legislation, and covered crimes punishable by amputation and stoning.

Under the legislation:

  • Offences such as rape, adultery, sodomy, robbery and insult or defamation of the Prophet Muhammad carry the maximum penalty of death
  • Lesbian sex carries a different penalty of 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in jail
  • The punishment for theft is amputation
  • Those who "persuade, tell or encourage" Muslim children under the age of 18 "to accept the teachings of religions other than Islam" are liable to a fine or jail
  • Individuals who have not reached puberty but are convicted of certain offences may be instead subjected to whipping.

What was the reaction?

The laws sparked international outrage, throwing the tiny South-East Asian nation into the global spotlight.

Ahead of their implementation, the UN warned that the laws contravened international human rights standards set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which was ratified by Brunei in 2006.

Celebrities including George Clooney and Elton John called for a boycott of luxury hotels with links to Brunei over the legislation.

Mr Clooney said the new laws amounted to "human rights violations".

Many in Brunei's gay community expressed shock and fear at the punishments.