BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei: The sultan of oil-rich Brunei announced that tough Islamic criminal punishments would be introduced today, pushing ahead with plans that have sparked rare domestic criticism of the fabulously wealthy ruler and international condemnation.
“With faith and gratitude to Allah the almighty, I declare that tomorrow, Thursday May 1, 2014, will see the enforcement of Sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases,” the absolute monarch said in a royal decree on Wednesday.
Plans for the Sharia penalties — which will eventually include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning — triggered condemnation on social media sites in the tiny, sleepy sultanate earlier this year.
Confusion has swirled around implementation following the unexplained postponement of an expected April 22 start date that raised questions over whether the Muslim monarch was hesitating.
But 67-year-old Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah—one of the world’s wealthiest men —said in his decree that the move was “a must” under Islam, dismissing “never-ending theories” that Sharia punishments were cruel in comments clearly aimed at detractors.
“Theory states that Allah’s law is cruel and unfair but Allah himself has said that his law is indeed fair,” he said.
The monarch’s wealth — estimated three years ago at $20 billion by Forbes magazine — has become legendary with reports of a vast collection of luxury vehicles and huge, gold-bedecked palaces.
The monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a sensational family feud between Hassanal and his younger brother Jefri Bolkiah over the latter’s alleged embezzlement of $15 billion during his tenure as finance minister in the 1990s.
Court battles and exposes revealed salacious details of Jefri’s un-Islamic jet-set lifestyle, including allegations of a high-priced harem of Western paramours and a luxury yacht he owned called “Tits.”
The sultan first proposed the Sharia penal code in 1990s, and in recent years has increasingly warned of rising crime and pernicious outside influences such as the Internet. He has called Islam a “firewall” against globalization.
He announced the implementation plans in October.
Brunei is the first country in East or Southeast Asia to introduce a sharia penal code on a national level.
The initial phase beginning today introduces fines or jail terms for offences ranging from indecent behavior, failure to attend Friday prayers, and out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
A second phase covering crimes such as theft and robbery is to start later this year, involving more stringent penalties such as severing of limbs and flogging.
Late next year, punishments such as death by stoning for offenses including sodomy and adultery will be introduced.
Brunei’s legal system currently features civil courts along with Sharia-compliant chambers handling non-criminal issues such as marital and inheritance cases.
The United Nation’s human rights office said this month it was “deeply concerned,” adding that women typically bear the brunt of punishment for crimes involving sex.
“It’s a return to medieval punishment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.