Brunei citizens fear speaking out on new cruel and inhuman punishments

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".