KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Brunei's sultan has said a moratorium on capital punishment is in effect for new Shariah criminal laws including stoning people for gay sex and adultery that sparked an international outcry.
The United Nations has called the laws implemented April 3 "draconian" while the U.S. and several other countries have urged Brunei to halt its plans. Celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John and Ellen DeGeneres have rallied for a boycott of nine hotels in the U.S. and Europe linked to Brunei.
Even before 2014, homosexuality was already punishable in Brunei by a jail term of up to 10 years. The new laws say those found guilty of gay sex can be stoned to death or whipped. Adulterers risk death by stoning too, while thieves face amputation of a right hand on their first offense and a left foot on their second. The new laws apply to children and foreigners, even if they are not Muslim.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said Sunday in a speech to mark the start of Ramadan that he was aware of the "many questions and misperceptions" over the penalties provided for under new sections of Brunei's Shariah Penal Code, but stressed that there should be no fear.
Brunei has had a "de facto moratorium" on capital punishment for over two decades and "this will also be applied to cases under the (Shariah laws) which provides a wider scope for remission," he said. The announcement came as a surprise but appeared aimed at deflecting criticism that Islamic criminal laws are cruel.
"We are conscious of the fact that misperceptions may cause apprehension. However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident," the sultan said. Sultan Hassanal said Brunei will also ratify the U.N. Convention Against Torture to show its commitment to human rights.
"Both the common law and the Shariah law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country. They are also crucial in protecting the morality and decency of the public as well as respecting the privacy of individuals," he added.
In an immediate reaction, Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland on Monday hailed the moratorium on the death penalty but also urged Brunei to revoke other harsh punishments such as amputation and flogging. Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth.
Sultan Hassanal instituted the Shariah Penal Code in 2014 to bolster the influence of Islam in the oil-rich monarchy of around 430,000 people, two-thirds of whom are Muslim. There has been no vocal opposition to the new penalties in Brunei, where the sultan rules as head of state with full executive authority. Public criticism of his policies is extremely rare in the country.