Brunei’s push to introduce Sharia law and deliver the extremely wealthy Muslim sultanate into legal territory more akin with Taliban thinking has been ruled incompatible with international human rights law by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
The ICJ also described the laws and severe punishments, which will come into force in April, as a backward step, particularly for women who have “more risk of receiving this penalty because they are most likely to be found guilty of adultery or having engaged in extra-marital sexual relations.”
Under the Sharia penal code the tough revised laws criminalizes extra-marital affairs, consensual gay sex and also re-introduces the death penalty by stoning and amputations for thieves, ending a long-standing moratorium.
Brunei announced the re-introduction of the laws in October, shortly after the tiny island state ended its 12-month term as chairman of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Critics argue the decision was timed to limit international criticism of the archaic medieval laws.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has said the Sharia Penal Code would only apply to Muslims and should be regarded as a form of “special guidance” from God.
About two-thirds of Brunei’s 420,000-strong population is Muslim.
Brunei became the first state in East Asia to impose Sharia law, beating even Malaysia which holds dear to its dubious claims of being secular. This will challenge ASEAN and its plans to launch an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), partially modeled on the European Union, by the end of next year.
In a letter to the Brunei government, the ICJ said the new legislation was not compatible with international human rights law. ICJ’s international adviser Emerlynne Gil told Australian radio the laws were definitely a setback for Brunei and the region, particularly for a country that was on the road to achieving international human rights standards.
“We were very surprised that an ASEAN member is doing this, especially at this point in time, where the ASEAN is trying to demonstrate to the international community that it is able to develop human rights standards,” she said.
The ICJ also noted that many crimes under the code would have a high burden of proof and that Sharia court judges would have discretion over punishments.
Standing Islamic rules in Brunei have traditionally been more sternly enforced than in Malaysia and Indonesia and were imposed largely through the family courts. Its rules include a ban on alcohol and evangelism by other religions.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.