05 April 2019

Rights lawyers condemn new sharia code

International rights groups have issued statements condemning Brunei over a sharia announcement which revives death penalty and laws contrary to human rights norms.


International legal bodies, along with other organisations and high-profile celebrities, have condemned the sultanate of Brunei's adoption of a new sharia-based penal code which includes punishment by amputation and stoning.

Dual legal system

In a public address, the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has called for "stronger" Islamic teachings, saying "I want to see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger," according to AFP news agency, though without mentioning the strict new interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. The country first introduced its version of Sharia law in 2014 despite widespread condemnation, giving it a dual legal system with both Sharia and Common Law. The sultan had said then that the new penal code would come into full force over several years. The first phase, which covered crimes punishable by prison sentences and fines, was implemented in 2014. Brunei had delayed introducing the final two phases, which cover crimes punishable by amputation and stoning. A March 30th statement from the prime minister’s office read: ‘Brunei Darussalam is a sovereign Islamic and fully independent country and, like all other independent countries, enforces its own rule of laws. Brunei Darussalam has always been practising a dual legal system, one that is based on the Syariah Law and the other on Common Law. In fully implementing the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO) 2013 from 3rd April 2019, both systems will continue to run in parallel to maintain peace and order and preserve religion, life, family and individuals regardless of gender, nationality, race and faith. The Syariah Law, apart from criminalizing and deterring acts that are against the teachings of Islam, it also aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race.’

Specific offences

The law mostly applies to Muslims, including children who have reached puberty, though some aspects will apply to non-Muslims. Under the new laws, individuals accused of certain acts will be convicted if they confess or if there were witnesses present. Offences such as rape, adultery, sodomy, robbery and insult or defamation of the Prophet Muhammad will carry the maximum penalty of death. Lesbian sex carries a different penalty of 40 strokes of the cane and/or a maximum of 10 years in jail. The punishment for theft is amputation. Those who "persuade, tell or encourage" Muslim children under the age of 18 "to accept the teachings of religions other than Islam" are liable to a fine or jail. Individuals who have not reached puberty but are convicted of certain offences may be instead subjected to whipping. Observers suggest the new code will be difficult to enforce and is being driven by economic interests of the state, which has a weakening economy.


The Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA) said it is appalled by reports of the decision to implement the death penalty by stoning for adultery and homosexual acts by consenting adults. The association noted that Brunei has had a de facto moratorium on capital punishment since 1957 but that the new code will revive the death penalty and permit laws that are contrary to well established human rights norms. The CLA states, “this is a regressive step on the part of the government of Brunei that cannot escape unequivocal and unreserved condemnation.” As a member of the Commonwealth, the Sultanate of Brunei is committed to uphold the Commonwealth Charter and to comply with international human rights laws. The International Bar Association Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) also spoke out. Co-chair The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, said “it is a horror story that contemporary rulers are even considering restoration of these shocking punishments in today’s world of the internet, science, the global response to disease and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It is an affront to universal human rights involving “cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and punishment”. The civilised world will not be silent in the face of these reports from Brunei.” The IBAHRI said that it opposes the criminalisation of homosexuality and laws that impose penalties for consensual, adult, private sexual conduct. The statement said, “laws that criminalise and impose penalties for consensual sexual conduct between members of the same sex infringe the human rights of LGBTI+ communities and violate their rights to equality, non-discrimination and human dignity.”

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