BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei - The sultan of oil-rich Brunei announced that tough Islamic criminal punishments would be introduced Thursday, pushing ahead with plans that have sparked rare domestic criticism of the fabulously wealthy ruler and international condemnation.
"I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the almighty to announce that tomorrow, Thursday May 1, 2014, will see the enforcement of sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases," the absolute monarch said in a royal decree Wednesday.
The sharia penalties - which will eventually include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning - triggered condemnation on social media sites in the tiny sultanate earlier this year.
Confusion has swirled around implementation following the unexplained postponement of an expected April 22 start date that raised questions over whether the Muslim monarch was hesitating.
But the 67-year-old sultan - one of the world's wealthiest men - said the move was "a must" under Islam, dismissing "never-ending theories" that sharia punishments were cruel, in comments clearly aimed at detractors.
"Theory states that Allah's law is cruel and unfair but Allah himself has said that his law is indeed fair," he said.
The monarch's wealth - estimated three years ago at $20 billion by Forbes magazine - has become legendary with reports of a vast collection of luxury vehicles and huge, gold-bedecked palaces.
The monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a sensational family feud between Hassanal and his younger brother Jefri Bolkiah over the latter's alleged embezzlement of 15 billion dollars during his tenure as finance minister in the 1990s.
Court battles and exposes revealed salacious details of Jefri's un-Islamic jet-set lifestyle, including allegations of a high-priced harem of Western paramours and a luxury yacht he owned called "Tits".
Public support, private unease
Bruneians enjoy among the highest standards of living in Asia due to the country's energy wealth, with education, medicine and other social services heavily subsidised.
The sultan has for years discussed introducing the sharia penal code, as he warned of rising crime in his sleepy realm and pernicious outside influences such as the Internet. He announced the implementation plans in October.
Situated on Borneo island, which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia, the small state already practised a relatively conservative form of Islam compared to its Muslim-majority neighbours, banning the sale of alcohol and heavily restricting other religions.