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HONG KONG — Brunei said Sunday it would not carry out executions by stoning for people convicted of adultery and gay sex, following widespread international protest over the brutality of such penalties.
Critics of the country’s newly enacted Islamic laws said several other harsh punishments remain on the books, including whipping and amputation, and they have called for continued opposition until the laws are completely revised.
The sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, said Sunday that his country had gone decades without carrying out the death penalty, and it would continue its de facto moratorium on executions despite the new punishments codified last month under a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
The United States, Britain, France, Germany and other countries protested the law, as did several celebrities, including George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John. Luxury hotels owned by the sultan, including the Dorchester in London and the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, faced calls for boycotts.
Previous international criticism led Brunei to delay implementation of the harshest provisions of its Shariah law after it was announced in 2013, but the country then moved ahead with them this year.
In comments Sunday at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the sultan said there were “many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation” of the laws.
“As evident for more than two decades, we have practiced a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law,” he added. “This will also be applied to cases under the” Shariah penal code.
But Sultan Hassanal’s brief comments did not specifically address other severe punishments in the laws, including whipping women convicted of lesbian sex and amputating a hand or foot for theft.
“The reality is this is all about trying to abate the international pressure coming on Brunei,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. The sultan “is obviously realizing there is a larger opposition to this law out in the international community and the Brunei brand is taking a hard hit.”
The sultan, 72, has ruled Brunei since 1967. The sultanate, which is roughly the size of Delaware, has a population of about 430,000 and sits on the north side of the island of Borneo. Vast oil resources have made Sultan Hassanal worth tens of billions of dollars, and he lives in a 1,788-room palace.
He has pushed a conservative vision of Islam that clashes with the opulent lifestyles of some of his family and has led to accusations of hypocrisy. Sultan Hassanal rules as an absolute monarch, giving him vast control over the workings of his government.
Critics have said that leads to little transparency about why such laws were enacted in the first place, and how they would be observed in the future.
“It was never explained why he came out with this law, it was never explained why they were needed,” Robertson said. “He says there’s a moratorium today but he could change his mind tomorrow. When lawmaking is done in this way, the pledges of an authoritarian leader whose word is essentially law need to be taken with a grain of salt.”