BRUNEI - The Sultan of Brunei yesterday announced the phased introduction of tough Islamic punishments, including death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, in the monarchy's latest step towards conservatism.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah - one of the world's wealthiest men - said in a speech that a new Syariah Penal Code, which has been in the works for years, had been gazetted yesterday and would "come into force six months hereafter and in phases".
Based on the details of particular cases, punishments can include stoning to death for adulterers, severing of limbs for theft and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to consumption of alcohol, according to a copy of the code.
"By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled," said the 67-year-old Sultan.
An all-powerful figure whose family has ruled the languid, oil-rich country of 400,000 for six centuries, the Sultan first called in 1996 for the introduction of syariah criminal punishments.
Brunei already practises a conservative brand of Islam relative to Malaysia and Indonesia, its Muslim neighbours in South-east Asia.
The sale and public consumption of alcohol are banned and the authorities restrict the activities of other religions closely.
It was not immediately clear how aggressively the new criminal code, which applies only to Muslims, would be implemented.
Brunei already has a dual-track system combining civil courts based on British law - the sultanate was a British protectorate until 1984 - and syariah courts that are currently limited to personal and family issues, such as marriage disputes.
Two years ago, a top official in the Attorney-General's office said Brunei would apply an extremely high burden of proof for syariah criminal infractions under the code, and that judges would have wide discretion in applying the Islamic punishments.
The comments were aimed at easing fears expressed by some Bruneians of a lurch towards draconian punishments.
The Sultan has leaned increasingly towards Islamic orthodoxy in recent years, including the introduction of mandatory religious education for all Muslim children and ordering all businesses in the country to close for two hours during Friday prayers.