BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - Brunei has postponed its implementation of tough Islamic criminal punishments that were due to begin Tuesday and have drawn condemnation from the UN's human rights office and rare criticism at home.
No confirmed new date was given for the start of the sharia penalties - which will eventually include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning - but an official told Brunei media they would begin "in the very near future".
Jauyah Zaini, assistant director of the oil-rich sultanate's Islamic Legal Unit, was quoted by the Brunei Times as saying implementation had been delayed "due to unavoidable circumstances". He did not elaborate or give a new date.
Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah - the driving force behind sharia - is visiting Singapore, and the government is believed to be waiting for the all-powerful Islamic monarch to return before introducing the sensitive legal code.
But the delay could feed perceptions of hesitation by the 67-year-old sultan - one of the world's wealthiest men - who earlier this year faced a backlash from the country's social-media-savvy citizens.
The new criminal code will phase in punishments, including execution by stoning for offences such as sodomy and adultery, severing of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to alcohol consumption.
Authorities have in recent weeks conducted a series of briefings for official agencies and non-government organisations to explain sharia.
'Firewall' against globalisation
"When you're trying to make such a leap, issues will arise," said Nizam Bashir, a Malaysian attorney and rights activist, who practices both civil and sharia law.
"Once you start getting feedback... then questions will arise that will give them food for thought that will not be in line with their initial conception."
However, he said it was unlikely the criminal code will be scrapped.
Brunei currently has a dual-track legal system of civil courts along with sharia courts handling non-criminal issues like marital and inheritance cases.
Authorities said a sharia "declaration ceremony" would go ahead as planned April 30, but gave no other details.
The sultan announced the new punishments last October as part of moves to shore up Islam in the country as a "firewall" against outside influences.
But the UN's human rights office said this month it was "deeply concerned", adding that penalties like stoning are classified under international law as "torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment".
Nearly 70 per cent of Brunei's 400,000 people are Muslim Malays while about 15 per cent are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese.
Malays have been broadly supportive of the move by their father-figure sultan.
But users of social media, the only outlet for public criticism of authorities, attacked it as barbaric earlier this year, prompting the sultan to publicly order a halt to criticism in late February.
An non-Muslim ethnic Chinese Bruneian who spoke on condition of anonymity said she was "scared" by the legal shift.
"I believe that this will cause a wedge, that was previously a tiny crack, between Muslims and non-Muslims citizens and permanent residents alike," the 28-year-old said. Non-Muslims also express anxiety over mixed messages on whether the punishments would apply to them.
Situated on Borneo island, which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia, tiny Brunei already practised a relatively conservative form of Islam compared to its Muslim-majority neighbours, banning the sale of alcohol and heavily restricting other religions.
Officials have said sharia cases would require an extremely high burden of proof and judges would have wide discretion to avoid sharia punishments.
Brunei already has the death penalty, but has not carried out any executions since 1957.