UN slams 'inhuman' Brunei stoning laws

New penal code imposes death penalty for rape, adultery, sodomy, robbery and insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

    The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, is the world's second-longest reigning monarch [File: Ahim Rani/Reuters]
    The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, is the world's second-longest reigning monarch [File: Ahim Rani/Reuters]

    The United Nations has criticised new "cruel and inhuman" laws set to take effect in Brunei this week, which impose death by stoning for adultery and gay sex, and amputations for theft.

    The controversial measures - part of a new penal code set to be implemented on Wednesday - have drawn widespread condemnation.

    UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in a statement on Monday urged Brunei's government to halt the entry into force of the "draconian" new penal code, saying it would "mark a serious setback for human rights protections for the people of Brunei if implemented". 

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    An absolute monarchy, ruled for 51 years by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei first announced the new penal code in 2013, but full implementation has been delayed in the face of opposition by rights groups and as officials worked out the practical details. 

    Bolkiah, 72, is the world's second-longest reigning monarch and ranks as one of the world's wealthiest people.

    The new law mostly applies to Muslims, though some aspects will also apply to non-Muslims. It stipulates the death penalty for a number of offences, including rape, adultery, sodomy, robbery and insulting or defaming the Prophet Muhammad. 

    It also introduces public flogging as punishment for abortion as well as amputation for theft and criminalises exposing Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.

    'High risk of miscarriages of justice'

    Homosexuality has long been illegal in the oil-rich sultanate, which practises a stricter brand of Islam than neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, but it will now become a capital offence. 

    Currently, only Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania and Sudan have laws in place that punish homosexuality with death, though it appears such death penalties have not been carried out in recent years, according to UN rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani. 

    In Monday's statement, Bachelet urged Brunei to uphold a long tradition of not applying death penalty laws that have remained on its books. The country last carried out an execution in 1957. 

    Bachelet warned the laws could encourage violence and discrimination [File: Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

    "In reality, no judiciary in the world can claim to be mistake-free, and evidence shows that the death penalty is disproportionately applied against people who are already vulnerable, with a high risk of miscarriages of justice. I urge Brunei to maintain its de facto moratorium on the use of capital punishment," Bachelet said. 

    The UN rights chief also warned that the new laws could encourage violence and discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation. 

    "Any religion-based legislation must not violate human rights, including the rights of those belonging to the majority religion as well as of religious minorities and non-believers," she said. 

    International condemnation

    Bachelet's comments come after a long line of politicians, rights groups and celebrities, including actor George Clooney and musician Elton John, condemned the new laws. 

    Clooney and John are among those calling for a boycott of hotels owned by the sultanate, which include the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Dorchester in London and the Plaza Athenee in Paris.

    Last week, former US Vice President Joe Biden called the new penal code "appalling and immoral" and said there was no excuse for such "hate and inhumanity". 

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    The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have all called on Brunei to abandon the changes to its penal code. However, Brunei's socially conservative neighbours - many of whom also criminalise homosexuality - have remained relatively silent on the new proposals, according to rights group The Brunei Project. 

    Sandwiched between two Malaysian states on Borneo island, Muslim-majority Brunei is home to some 430,000 people.

    The government holds no elections and provides generous policies including zero taxes, subsidised housing and free healthcare and education.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies