Brunei backflips on same-sex death penalty following international backlash

Blonde and redhead woman wrapped in rainbow flag

After implementing strict anti-LGBTQI laws in April, the Sultan of Brunei has extended a moratorium on the death penalty for adultery and homosexuality, following humanitarian and celebrity backlash.

When Brunei, a nation on the island of Borneo, with a population of some 400,000 people, announced it would implement its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia laws, punishing adultery and homosexuality with death by stoning, the country was met with international condemnation.

Among those opposing the laws were the United Nations and Amnesty International, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet describing the revisions as enshrining in legislation “cruel and inhuman punishments that seriously breach international human rights law”.

Brunei has consistently defended its right to implement the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO), which also punishes theft with amputation and abortion with public flogging, with elements of the laws first adopted in 2014.

However, following the introduction of its latest roll-out of laws that were implemented on 3 April, and widespread criticism aimed at the country, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has since restrained his interpretation of the SPCO, with Reuters reporting the death penalty will not be imposed for homosexuality.

Reuters and The Guardian added that some crimes already command the death penalty in Brunei, including premeditated murder and drug trafficking; however, no executions have been carried out since 1957.

“I am aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation of the SPCO,”the sultan said in a speech ahead of the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident.

“As evident for more than two decades, we have practiced 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.”

Responses to the announcement have been positive, but many critics have urged caution and restraint in receiving the news.

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson tweeted the Sultan’s speech showed that the international campaign against Brunei was working, but “more pressure is needed”.

Tom Knight, a columnist for Gay Times Magazine, described it as “fantastic news”.

The announcement in April of the introduction of the SPCO prompted human rights agencies, celebrities and multinational companies to cut ties with Brunei and its state-owned assets.

George Clooney and Elton John were among the first to openly urge the international community to condemn the country led by Bolkiah – one of the wealthiest men in the world– by boycotting its state-owned accommodation.

The properties are owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, a state-backed property group owning nine luxury hotels across the globe.

Ellen DeGeneres later joined the fray in condemnation of Brunei, by urging her followers to boycott its state’s international accommodation, but went one further by publishing on social media a list of several international properties owned by Bolkiah.

Virgin Australia announced in April that it would end its staff leisure travel agreement with Royal Brunei Airlines, following harsh “penalties being introduced for activity that is legal and acceptable in Australia”.

STA Travel also joined the boycott, announcing last month that it would also no longer be working with Royal Brunei Airlines.

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