Beginning on April 1, the tiny but oil and petroleum-rich nation of Brunei, will be the first eastern Asian country to implement nation-wide the strict penal code of Shariah. This law strictly regulates punishments such as the amputation of limbs for theft, stoning for adultery, and flogging for alcohol consumption, abortion and homosexuality.
Those punishments are referred to as “hudud,” or punishments that are fixed for certain kinds of crimes, ones which are referred to as “claims of Allah.” Under strict Islamic law, the sovereign is required to apply those punishments for the stated crimes whether or not the victim complains.
The Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is Brunei’s monarch. The Sultan also happens to be the prime minister, as well as the minister of both defense and finance of the tiny nation on the north east coast of the island of Borneo, located in the South China Sea. Borneo is to the south of the Philippines, and northwest of Australia. Other than its coastline, Brunei is surrounded by Malaysia. Its territory, like that of Malaysia, is non-contiguous.
Brunei has substantial petroleum and natural gas fields. It is ranked fifth in the world for per capita GDP, one ahead of the United States.
Brunei has been Islamic since the 16th Century. After various invasions, occupations and protectorates, Brunei became a fully sovereign nation in 1984. Brunei is an absolute monarchy with a constitution, but one which the Sultan is able to amend.
The nation’s legal system is largely based on English common law, although it employed various elements of Shariah law especially for family law and civil disputes, and its non-Shariah laws are reviewed to ensure Shariah compliance. As an Islamic country, it is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Two-thirds of the 440,000 Bruneians are Muslim. Religious education for Muslim Bruneians is already compulsory, and all businesses are required to shut down before sundown on Fridays, in observance of the Muslim sabbath.
In October, the 66 year old Sultan announced that his nation would implement the Shariah Penal Code. He said it should be considered a form of “special guidance” from Allah and its implementation would be remembered as part of the “great history” of Brunei.
“By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled,” the sultan said at a legal conference in Brunei’s capital.
The nation’s top Islamic scholar scolded critics for focusing solely on the amputations, stonings and canings.
Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz explained that there will not be “indiscriminate cutting or stoning or caning.”
In other words, only if one is found guilty of one of the crimes for which those punishments is required, will one be subjected to it. And there were at least initial guarantees that only Muslims will be subject to the Hudud.
WARNING AGAINST CRITICISM OF THE HUDUD OR OF THE SULTAN
Following several months of critical responses from some Bruneians, the Sultan issued a harsh warning to his people last month, through an official statement marking Brunei’s National Day.
Brunei citizens were warned that online criticism of the future imposition of the Shariah penal code and even about the Sultan would get them in a great deal of trouble. The threat was sufficiently broad that it suggested there might be a move to interfere with Internet access unless the criticism stopped.
The threat was posed as a rebuke to “outsiders” who are using the Internet to influence people within Brunei, who in turn criticize and even dare to mock the decisions of the Sultan.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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