Published on 30 Apr 2014 Sections

Gay, pregnant and unmarried, or like a drink? Don't go to Brunei

Brunei may be small – but it is earning an over-sized reputation for brutality as it introduces Sharia law punishments for offences including pregnancy outside marriage and homosexual acts.

The sultanate of Brunei is a tiny, scoop-shaped nation in south-east Asia – the sort of place that doesn’t  tend to attract much attention.

The former British protectorate claims a modest population of 400,000 and it’s probably best known for its oil and gas reserves – and the fact that the British army still conducts training there.

In the last few weeks however, Brunei has been busy earning itself an over-sized reputation for inhumanity with human rights groups and international celebrities.

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Today, Brunei became the first country in the region to implement an Islamic criminal code, containing Sharia law punishments for offences like pregnancy outside marriage, failure to perform religious rites and propagating other religions.

The second phase, due later this year, covers offences like theft and alcohol consumption which will be punishable by whippings and amputations. A final phase, to be introduced next year, deals with homosexual acts, adultery and blasphemy. The punishment for these offences will be death, including death by stoning.

The change in law, which is expected to apply to Muslims and non-Muslims, has been hailed by the 67-year-old Sultan of Brunei, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, as, “a part of the great history of our nation.”

The United Nations does not see it that way however. A spokesman called it “cruel, inhuman,” and “clearly prohibited,” under international law. The country’s new criminal code will also worry Brunei’s sizable expatriate community – many of whom work in the country’s oil sector – as well as Buddhists and Christians who make up roughly 20 per cent of the population.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, said: “Brunei’s decision to implement criminal shariah 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.

“The entire world should express its outrage and heap criticism on this ill-considered move and urge the Brunei government to immediately reconsider.

“Implementing such a cruel, rights abusing law on May Day, a day that celebrates solidarity of humanity in common work-related endeavor, is a clear indication of Brunei’s willingness to disregard basic human rights and denigrate human sensibility.”

A group of British and American celebrities have found a practical way to make their displeasure known, orchestrating a boycott of hotels and facilities owned by the Brunei government.

Take Stephen Fry for example, who cancelled his stay at luxury hotel Coworth Park, in Berkshire, last Saturday. The exclusive five-star resort is part of the ‘Dorchester Collection’, owned by Brunei’s Investment Agency.

The star tweeted the decision to his many followers, making him the latest in a line of celebrities – including US talk-show host Ellen de Generes – to shun hotels owned by the investment agency.

Last week, a major LGBT philanthropist conference was moved out of the Brunei-owned Beverly Hills Hotel in California and designers Peter Som and Brian Atwood said they would boycott ‘Dorchester Collection’ hotels during Fashion week events in Paris, Milan and London.

It is worth noting that the hotel chain bestows a fashion award of its own. The ‘Dorchester Collection Fashion Prize’ was first awarded in 2010 to “discover emerging fashion talent and built on the Dorchester Collection’s own established fashion heritage.”

If this celebrity-driven boycott gains momentum however, it may become the industry prize that no one wants to win.

In response to international criticism about the implementation of the criminal code, officials told news agency Reuters that a high burden of proof will apply to harsher punishments.​

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