Brunei bringing in legal system that includes stoning and flogging

By Andrew Buncombe

Sultan of Brunei. Photo / AP
Sultan of Brunei. Photo / AP

The Sultan of Brunei, one of the world's wealthiest rulers, will this week oversee his country's transition to a system of Islamic law with punishments that include flogging, the dismemberment of limbs and stoning to death.

The 67-year-old absolute monarch declared last year that he wanted to introduce a full sharia system in his oil-rich nation and warned critics who took to social media sites to complain that they could be prosecuted using the new laws.

The decision to introduce sharia and reintroduce the death penalty has been condemned by NGOs and legal rights campaigners, who say the new rules will breach international laws. It has also triggered alarm among some of Brunei's non-Muslim communities, who will also be subject to some of the rulings.

In a letter to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the International Commission of Jurists said it deplored the new rules, adding that, if implemented, they would lead to serious human rights violations.

"Brunei has not implemented the death penalty for years, so it came as quite a surprise that the new law has reintroduced it," said Emerlynne Gil of the commission.

Brunei is two-thirds Muslim and has long implemented some sharia, mainly for civil matters such as marriage. But last year the Sultan, who is said to be worth $46 billion and lives in a 1788-room palace, announced a plan to introduce full Islamic law.

Offences include insulting the Prophet Muhammad, drinking alcohol, getting pregnant outside of marriage and sodomy. The latter will be punishable by stoning.

"It is because of our need that Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilise them to obtain justice," the Sultan said at the time.

It is unclear precisely what is motivating the Sultan, who also serves as the country's Prime Minister and assumed the throne in 1967. But in a speech in February to mark the country's National Day holiday, he claimed the system of an absolute Islamic monarch acted as a "strong and effective firewall" against the challenges of globalisation. He referred specifically to the internet.

He claimed that there were those, both in and outside Brunei, which last year chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), who had been challenging his plans and who wanted to see "internal turmoil". He added: "These parties, it seems, have attempted to mock the king, the Islamic scholars and sharia. They are using the new media, such as blogs, WhatsApp and so on, which are not just accessed by locals but also by those overseas."

The speech by the Sultan has had the impact of silencing many who might publicly speak out against the move.

Yet there are concerns, especially among the minority communities. There are around 30,000 Filipino citizens in Brunei, many of them Catholic, and the Philippine Ambassador to Brunei, Nestor Ochoa, recently held a meeting at which he warned his countrymen about the implications of the new laws.

There are also concerns that baptisms of newborn babies could breach the new rules.

Sharia rule explained

What is sharia?

Sharia is the Islamic legal system that derives from the Koran, the example of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and "fatwas", which are the rulings of Islamic scholars. Different schools of thought have different interpretations.

What does it cover?

While Western law confines itself predominantly to crime and civil matters, sharia is a guide to help Muslims understand how they should lead every aspect of their lives. This ranges from deciding whether to enter a bar with someone wanting to drink alcohol to the punishments for theft or for criticising the Koran. Its treatment of women is particularly controversial. Judgments have banned the holding of property once married, enabled beatings for insubordination, and required a husband's consent to divorce.

Where is it used?

Mauritania, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Nigeria all apply sharia. Some states, including UAE, Jordan and Egypt, use some form of sharia in their judicial system.

- Independent

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