Brunei: Governments urged to keep pressure on after LGBT death penalty halt

Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah during the 34th National Day celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, February 24, 2018 – Image: REUTERS/Ahim Rani

Diplomatic pressure on Brunei should not be eased until anti-LGBT+ laws are completely repealed, human rights advocates said on Monday, dismissing the Southeast Asian country’s move to extend a moratorium on the death penalty.

Brunei sparked a global outcry when it rolled out its interpretation of Islamic laws, or sharia, on April 3, allowing whipping and stoning to death for those found guilty of adultery, sodomy and rape.

Seeking to temper a backlash led by celebrities such as actor George Clooney and singer Elton John, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on Sunday extended a moratorium on the death penalty to include its new Islamic laws.

“On the surface it seems like good news,” said Matthew Woolfe, founder of human rights group The Brunei Project.

“(But) the fact that these laws are not being repealed is still of concern to us,” Australia-based Woolfe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There is nothing stopping the Brunei government from lifting the moratorium at anytime.”

Brunei, a former British protectorate of about 400,000 nestled between two Malaysian states on Borneo island, was the first country in east Asia to adopt the criminal component of sharia at a national level in 2014.

Previously homosexuality was illegal in Brunei, and punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, but the April penal code changes allowed whipping and stoning to death for those found guilty of adultery, sodomy and rape.

In a surprise response to criticism aimed at the oil-rich state, the sultan on Sunday said the death penalty would not be imposed in the implementation of the penal code changes.

Some crimes already command the death penalty in Brunei, including premeditated murder and drug trafficking, but no executions have been carried out since 1957.

“The Sultan’s statement opens a window for dialogue,” said Ryan Silverio of the ASEAN Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Caucus in Manila.

“Political and economic pressure must be complemented with meaningful dialogue with the government and more importantly, ordinary people in Brunei,” he said.

“Progressive and human rights based interpretations and practices of Syariah must be promoted across all levels in Brunei.”

Despite the announcement, the new penal code changes still allows fines, whipping and jail terms for same-sex activity, the amputation of limbs for those guilty of theft, the flogging of minors and limits on religious freedoms, said Woolfe.

The intervention by the Sultan was likely down to the intense diplomatic pressure over the past month, which does not appear to be abating, he said.

Condemnation and pressure from both the European Parliament and the US Congress played a big role, Woolfe added.

“I wouldn’t want to see the diplomatic community now taking a step back … there is nothing stopping the government, when things quieten down, to simply remove the moratorium and start imposing these laws.”

The vastly wealthy sultan often faces criticism from activists who view his absolute monarchy as despotic, but it is unusual for him to respond.

“The entire law should be scrapped because it’s a rights abusing monstrosity reminiscent of a medieval yesteryear that has no place in the modern age,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at campaign group Human Rights Watch.

“This moratorium on the death penalty doesn’t go nearly far enough, it’s clear the Sultan is only addressing the most horrific part of the law in the hope of blunting international criticism and anger.”

-Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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