In this picture taken on April 1, a newlywed couple get their photographs taken at the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan. The United Nations decried on April 1 new "cruel and inhuman" laws in Brunei which impose death by stoning for gay sex and adultery, and amputations for theft. (AFP photo)
The sultan of Brunei has kept his promise and instituted a Saudi brand of Shariah law, which will enable religious authorities to inflict a raft of medieval punishments including amputations and death by stoning for crimes they consider worthy.
Laws enabling the macabre practices came into force last week as Brunei, once a moderate and wealthy Islamic sultanate, grapples with dwindling oil reserves and is making every effort to please Saudi Arabia, a key ally and benefactor.
Thieves, a rare issue in the tiny Southeast Asian country, and homosexuals, who inhabit every strata of Brunei life, are among the targets, outraging civil society around the world and inspiring boycotts of the royal family’s extensive business interests.
Yet the draconian punishments came as no surprise. After all, this is a country that once banned Christmas and forces non-Islamic religions to seek permission before staging cultural festivities.
The outraged chorus includes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States, Germany, France, Britain and Australia. Travel warnings have been issued, noting that executions and other physical punishments are applicable under the new laws.
In the celebrity world, comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, pop star Elton John and actor George Clooney are leading a boycott of plush hotels owned by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, including Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, The Dorchester in London and others in Paris, Rome and Milan.
Airline Virgin Australia has canceled a staff travel agreement with Brunei's national carrier, warning: “The code applies to Muslims, non-Muslims and foreigners, even when transiting on Brunei-registered aircraft and vessels.”
And an honorary degree awarded by the University of Aberdeen to the sultan is under review.
Implementation of the penal code began in phases in 2013 and was quickly followed by a warning from the International Commission of Jurists, who said the planned laws were incompatible with international human rights.
It also said women were at risk because they were most likely to be found guilty of adultery. That “crime” — alongside abortion and gay sex — can result in death by stoning. There is also a provision for lesbians, who face up to 100 lashes.
The laws apply to children who have reached puberty, with offenses such as rape, sodomy, robbery and insulting the Prophet Muhammad all carrying the death penalty. Convicted children who have not reached puberty will be spared execution and whipped instead.
For the death penalty to be imposed, either four people must have witnessed the act or the accused must confess. The law stipulating amputations for theft has led to a repugnant argument between religious officials and an upset Brunei medical fraternity; how best to cut off a person’s limbs?
It’s a throwback to the dark days of the Taliban in Afghanistan when doctors clad in blue surgical suits would remove the hands of thieves in public, at the Kabul football stadium on Fridays after prayers, with a fixated audience watching on from the stands. Executions were also common.
Predictably and sadly, ASEAN countries have stuck to their policy of not commenting on the internal affairs of a neighbor, but Brunei’s attitude to the death penalty still cuts across the grain. Malaysia has just dropped the death penalty as mandatory for specific crimes.
Extreme interpretation of the Quran
The Saudis have stepped up their checkbook diplomacy in recent years, targeting China and Southeast Asia, particularly Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Initially the funding came through charities but this is shifting to direct investment.
Like Saudi Arabia, Brunei has an almost totally oil-dependent economy, but both countries are keen to shift away from this focus and are courting the Chinese. In Brunei, government revenue fell 70 percent between 2013 and 2016 and the tiny nation of 430,000 people is expected to run out of oil in less than 20 years.
Saudi-style Wahhabism — and its extreme interpretation of the Quran — is a constant concern in Southeast Asia given the years of fighting terrorists like Jemaah Islamiyah, whose funding sources were traced to bank accounts controlled by Wahhabis.
Human rights groups in Indonesia have raised concerns over the funding of ultraorthodox clerics and their views, which differ entirely from a national syncretic perspective that had absorbed local traditions predating the arrival of the first Muslims in the 13th century.
Outspoken Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has warned that Malays are losing touch with their identity and that her country is in danger of undergoing “Arab colonization.”
In Brunei, that sort of talk will get you jailed under its own brand of lese majeste laws, as will criticism of the Saudis, who have pressured the sultan into initiating a crackdown on what might have passed for a free press after unfavorable reports.
Riyadh even complained to Brunei’s foreign ministry about a report in the Brunei Times that tied increased visa fees for the annual hajj pilgrimage to a fall in oil prices.
Brunei’s role as an independent and moderate Islamic country in the diplomatic community is as compromised as the monarchy’s standing at home, where there are no ancient traditions that can be used to define sexuality between consenting adults as a crime.
Nor is there any legal or historical precedent that justify stoning and amputations.
These are crimes and punishments exported by Saudi Wahhabis seeking to impose an ultraorthodox and myopic culture of Islam on foreign lands in return for their cash.
It’s a brand of Shariah that was derived from a barbaric time in the Middle East and deserves to be utterly renounced in the 21st century and forever expunged from the statute books in any country that aspires to be a part of the civilized world.
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews.com. Twitter: @lukeanthonyhunt