Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has buckled under worldwide condemnation and ruled out the death penalty for gay sex.
A host of celebrities, including George Clooney and Elton John, led global outrage over the tiny, oil-rich South-East Asian nation’s introduction of Islamic laws, or sharia, on April 3, punishing sodomy, adultery and rape with death, including by stoning.
Brunei had consistently defended its right to implement the laws, elements of which were first adopted in 2014 and which have been rolled out in phases since then.
However, in a rare response to criticism aimed at the oil-rich state, the sultan said the death penalty would not be imposed in implementing the Shariah Penal Code Order.
Some crimes already command the death penalty in Brunei, including premeditated murder and drug trafficking. But the tiny state has carried out no executions since the 1990s.
“I am aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation of the SPCO. However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident,” the Sultan said on Sunday, in a speech ahead of the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“As evident for more than two decades, we have practised a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law. This will also be applied to cases under the SPCO, which provides a wider scope for remission.”
The vastly wealthy sultan, who once piloted his own 747 plane to meet former US president Barack Obama, is often criticised by activists who view his absolute monarchy as despotic, but it is unusual for him to respond.
The sultan’s office released an official English translation of his speech, which is not common practice.
“Both the common law and the Shariah law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country,” he said.
“They are also crucial in protecting the morality and decency of the country as well as the privacy of individuals.”
The law’s implementation, which the United Nations condemned, prompted celebrities and rights groups, including in Australia, to seek a boycott on hotels owned by the sultan. They include the Dorchester in London and the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
Several multinational companies have also banned staff using the sultan’s hotels, while some travel companies have stopped promoting Brunei as a destination.