Sultan of Brunei Threatens Critics of Sharia Law

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei. Image from Flickr page of Jim Trodel (CC License)

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Brunei. Image from Flickr page of Jim Trodel (CC License)

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah warned online critics of the country’s Sharia Law that they could face prosecution once the new penal code takes effect next month:

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.

The Sultan issued this statement during the 30th National Day celebration after many Brunei netizens reacted negatively to the decision of the government to implement Sharia criminal laws.

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. The Sultan is also one of the wealthiest people in the world.

Sharia is currently implemented in the country but it is limited to personal and family issues. But beginning April 1, the scope of Sharia punishments will be expanded to include stoning to death for adultery, cutting of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations such as abortion, alcohol consumption, and homosexuality. There is also capital punishment for rape and sodomy. Brunei is the first East Asian country to implement the Sharia law at the national level.

The Sultan may have been upset by social media comments which criticized the Sharia laws. In his speech, he cautioned his people to be wary of Internet users who are insulting Brunei’s Islamic scholars and leaders of the government:

We must be wise and cautious in reaping its benefits. Otherwise, if we are careless and abuse (this technology), the adverse effects will not just be on the individual but on the nation as a whole.

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.

…poses a challenge to the new generation who must have in them a solid standing in line with the country’s aspiration and they must not be influenced by these elements who are irresponsible and wish to see internal turmoil or to instigate conflict and do not respect their leader or government.

Reacting to the sultan’s speech, Sam Zarifi of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) urged Brunei to respect the dissenting views of its citizens:

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s statement illustrates that human rights, particularly respect for freedom of opinion and expression, is widely disregarded by the authorities in Brunei.

Free, unhindered debates on issues like the enactment or implementation of a law are important cornerstones of a democratic society.

Earlier, the ICJ criticized the Sharia penal code for being incompatible with Brunei’s commitment to adhere to various international human rights agreements. In particular, the ICJ is deeply disappointed over the reintroduction of death penalty in the country:

If implemented, the code would lead to serious human rights violations by reintroducing the death penalty and imposing other cruel and inhuman punishment including stoning, even for conduct that should not even be considered criminal.

The 2013 Penal Code also specifies that a manner by which capital punishment is to be imposed for rape, adultery, sodomy and extramarital sexual relations is stoning to death, a particularly horrific form of torture and execution.

Brunei has not carried out the death penalty since 1957.

The ICJ also submitted a letter to the government asking clarification on provisions that they think would restrict free speech:

…we note, however, that provisions of the 2013 Penal Code, penalise both Muslims and non-Muslims for printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting, and distributing publications “contrary to Hukum Syara” (Articles 213, 214, and 215). We consider that these provisions constitute undue restrictions on religious freedom and violate of the rights of freedom of expression and opinion.

Once the Sharia law takes effect, non-Muslims are prohibited from using 19 words to refer to other religions. These words include “Allah“, “mu’min” (believer) and “masjid” (mosque).

The Malaysian Insider highlighted a comment from a reader who is worried over the strict implementation of the Sharia next month:

It is truly frightening to think that we might potentially be stoned to death for being lovers, that we may be fined for being of a different sexual orientation, and that what we wear will be regulated.

But Professor Najibah Mohd Zin, a female Islamic scholar, believes that the proper implementation of the law would not create social problems:

We need to give proper attention to the implementation. We do not want to see discrepancies; otherwise it’s not going to be just. We want to achieve justice, but if it’s not just then it will be a setback to the Muslim countries.

I think the public should know the law very well. They should learn how it works within the modern context, rather than looking at it from a negative perspective. We don’t implement the law in our time, that’s why we have a lot of social problems.

What the Sultan’s speech revealed is the real danger of using Sharia law not to promote harmony in society but to stifle free expression and open debate in the country.

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