Brunei Implements Sharia Law Despite Worries of Human Rights Violations

Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in the capital of Brunei. Photo by Santi Palacios, Copyright @Demotix (8/12/2010)

Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in the capital of Brunei. Photo by Santi Palacios, Copyright @Demotix (8/12/2010)

On May 1, 2014 the Sharia Law took effect in Brunei which made it the first country in East Asia to implement the law at the national level.

There will be three phases in implementing the law. The first phase, now operational, covers general offenses such as eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan, failure to perform Friday prayers, and pregnancy out of wedlock. The second phase includes cutting of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations such as abortion, alcohol consumption, and homosexuality. The death penalty will be applied during the third phase which would involve stoning to death for adultery, and also capital punishment for rape and sodomy.

Brunei is a Muslim-majority country. It is a monarchy where the Sultan is also the Prime Minister and wields absolute power in the government and in Brunei society. Before May 1, the Sharia Law was restricted to personal and family issues.

In the past six months, the government has launched an information and education campaign about the rationale and content of the Sharia Law. One of the controversial and much talked about issues is the provision on ‘indecent clothing’:

The section, titled “Indecent Behaviour”, states that any person who commits an act of indecent behaviour in a public place is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $2,000, imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or both.

An act is deemed indecent if it tarnishes the image of Islam, corrupts moral standards, causes negative influence or upsets eyewitnesses.

Asked if wearing a bikini in a swimming pool is a violation of the Sharia Law, a Religious Officer admitted that “the issue is not clear cut.”

Some enthusiastic supporters of the law have started confronting people for the crime of not wearing a tudong (veil), and the crime of wearing “indecent” attire like wearing of short pants.

Another question raised by the people is the provision on hurting another person during sports activities. Religious Officer Saadatul Nazaha Hj Saiful Ashur of the Islamic Legal Unit explained further:

Victims whose eyes get damaged in extreme sports activities could claim compensation against the accused. The compensations will then be evaluated and estimated by the Syariah Court, depending on the gravity of the injuries being inflicted.

The imam of Jame’ ‘Asr Hassanal Bolkiah, Haris Hj Suboh, urged the public to understand the importance of embracing the Sharia Law:

If they understand the law very well, then there should not be any problem for them.

The law itself (acts) as a guidance to Muslims to be more afraid of God’s wrath; punishments that are carried out in the world is different from the ones to be carried out in the hereafter.

Do not focus on the punishments prescribed by the law, said Attorney General Datin Hjh Hayati:

It’s crucial that we and the outside community understand these distinctions and not continue to focus on the punishments but shift it to the code’s strict and complex due process.

She even defended the Sharia Law to be less harsh when it comes to the penalty of caning:

It suffices that the hand is raised slowly and caning strike on the back is done evenly – not just on one area.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah told his people to unite and ignore critics from other countries:

Do not pay any attention to what others say about us here in Brunei because they do not know the way we know what it is to be Bruneian and how it is in Brunei.

What is important is that we ourselves as Bruneians must truly be Bruneian, united as one regardless of ethnicity, race or religion.

Be a nation as how a Bruneian would, a government as how Bruneians are governed, a monarchy or lead as how a Bruneian can lead, with undivided loyalty and total devotion.

Earlier, he warned online critics that they will be punished for violating the Sharia Law:

They can no longer be given the liberty to continue with their mockery and if there is a basis for them to be brought to court, then therefore, the first phase of the Syariah (criminal) law this coming April will be relevant to them.

Many Bruneians have welcomed the passage of the Sharia Law:

Noruzanna Sabeli, a clerk at the Ministry of Education, believes that the strong penalties in the law would deter people to commit heinous crimes:

The punishment for stealing is to cut their hand. Knowing this, people will be discouraged to steal.

If it is just a sentence to jail, people can just go to jail, free food then once they’re out again, they are free to commit the crime again.

But a civil servant is worried about the impact of the law on non-Muslims:

I know we are a country proud of its official religion and I’m sure this has been thought through but we still need to ensure it doesn’t bear too much implications on other things that are part of our national interest. I hope other religions and races would still be respected.

A Filipino catholic priest warned that baptisms could face restrictions:

There will be no baptisms. There is not a lot we can do about it. We will have to wait and see what happens.

Teaching of other religions is prohibited under the Sharia Law. Some Christian schools are already expressing concern about this provision.

Global reactions are not favorable to Brunei. Many questioned Brunei’s decision to implement the harsh aspects of the law which would violate human rights.

Some personalities such as TV host Ellen DeGeneres and Virgin CEO Richard Branson have supported a campaign to boycott hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei.

The Amnesty International said the “shocking new Penal Code will take the country back to the dark ages when it comes to human rights.” Rupert Abbott, Deputy Asia-Pacific Director at Amnesty International, added:

Brunei Darussalam’s new Penal Code legalizes cruel and inhuman punishments. It makes a mockery of the country’s international human rights commitments and must be revoked immediately.

The new code even permits stoning to death for acts which should not be considered ‘crimes’ in the first place, such as extramarital sexual relations and consensual sex between adults of the same gender.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, also criticized the law:

Brunei’s decision to implement criminal Sharia law is a huge step backwards for human rights in the country. It constitutes an authoritarian move towards brutal medieval punishments that have no place in the modern, 21st century world.


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