The Sultan of Brunei introduced tough sharia-law punishments yesterday, including death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, hailing what he called a "historic" step toward Islamic orthodoxy for his country.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah - one of the world's wealthiest men - said a new sharia penal code in the works for years was officially introduced in the tiny, oil-rich sultanate and would be phased in beginning in six months.
Based on individual cases, punishments could include stoning to death for adultery, severing of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to alcohol consumption, according to a copy of the code. The code applies only to Muslims.
"By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled," the sultan, 67, said in a speech.
An absolute monarch whose family has tightly controlled the country of 408,000 people for six centuries, the sultan first called in 1996 for the introduction of sharia criminal punishments.
The sultan already imposes a relatively conservative brand of Islam on his subjects, compared to Brunei's Muslim neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Brunei bans the sale and public consumption of alcohol and closely restricts other religions.
But sharia has been a rare point of contention in a land where the sultan's word is unquestioned, with many Bruneians quietly complaining that the concept is out of step with the affluent country's laid-back ethnic Malay society.
"These rights-abusing policies are a good indication of why modern democracy and the right of people to participate in their government is a much better idea than anachronistic absolute monarchy," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
The situation shows that "respect for basic civil and political rights is near zero in Brunei," he added. It was not immediately clear how aggressively it would be enforced.
Two years ago, the attorney general's office promised Brunei would apply an extremely high burden of proof for sharia cases and judges would have wide discretion in applying it. The comments were apparently aimed at easing public fears.