On 3rd April 2019, Brunei brought into force a revised Sharia (Islamic law) penal code that imposes the death penalty and public flogging for various offences. According to human rights groups , those in the country who oppose the law face real risks if they speak out against the laws
On 3rd April 2019, Brunei brought into force a revised Sharia (Islamic law) penal code that according to the United Nations (UN) would “would enshrine in legislation cruel and inhuman punishments that seriously breach international human rights law”.
The law imposes the death penalty for offences such as rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations for Muslims, robbery, and insult or defamation of the Prophet Mohammad, among others. It introduces public flogging as a punishment for abortion, amputation for theft and 40 lashes for lesbian sex. It also criminalises exposing Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.
The new Sharia penal code also punishes both Muslims and non-Muslims for printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting, and distributing publications against Islamic beliefs and “indecent” dressing and cross-dressing.
According to human rights initiative, the Brunei Project, there are those in the country who oppose the law but “there are real risks for those who speak out”. In a statement by over a hundred civil society groups in Southeast Asia, the organisations said:
“The [law] inevitably ends up disproportionately targeting those who are already vulnerable and socially marginalised, including women, children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, the economically disadvantaged, religious minorities. …[as] a consequence, this will further silence dissent, create a culture of fear among its people, and further shrink civic space in the country.”
As previously documented, freedom of speech and expression is severely restricted due to repressive legislation and self-censorship. Further, as the leading daily newspapers belong to the Sultan’s family, who is the head of state, independent reporting of human rights issues are virtually non-existent in the media. Online speech is also monitored by authorities. Brunei is ranked 153 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
On 1st April 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the government of Brunei to halt the entry into force of the revised Penal Code saying it “would mark a serious setback for human rights protections for the people of Brunei if implemented”. On the same day, six UN human rights experts issued a communication to Brunei, urging the government to "revoke the Syariah Penal Code Order and to repeal it completely as it would not be in conformity with international human rights law".
While a limited number of causes – including education and cultural activities - are advanced through organised civil society in Brunei, there are no organisations actively promoting human rights or religious freedoms.
While a limited number of causes – including education and cultural activities - are advanced through organised civil society in Brunei, there are no organisations actively promoting human rights or religious freedoms. Due to the criminalisation of homosexuality, the establishment of LGBTI groups is virtually impossible. Chapter 66 of the Laws of Brunei provides for the regulation of societies, whose operation is overseen by the Registrar of Societies, a direct appointee of the Sultan. The state sets strict rules under which organisations can be established, even having input on what an organisation can be called. Individual applicants are subjected to background checks and the authorities keep a close eye on the operation of associations through strict reporting requirements.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is not guaranteed in the constitution and Brunei is not a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is not guaranteed in the constitution and Brunei is not a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A perpetual state of emergency in Brunei makes any public gathering of more than ten people subject to prior approval by the authorities. In practice, few displays of public discontent with the government take place and strikes by workers are also illegal.
People in Brunei do not openly criticise the government and the media is closely controlled by the State.
People in Brunei do not openly criticise the government and the media is closely controlled by the State. Journalists face unwarranted state interference and are frequently forced to censor themselves. Rights groups have criticised the Sharia penal code for also restricting the freedom of expression of people in Brunei. The new penal code provides for imprisonment of up to 30 years or 40 strokes of the cane for blasphemy or denying the teachings of the Quran. A recently-updated Sedition Act also imposes harsh penalties for people found guilty of insulting the Head of State. Online platforms and social media do provide some space for freer expression in Brunei. According to the International Telecommunications Union, in 2014 almost 70% of people in Brunei had Internet access.