Brunei won’t enforce death penalty for gay sex after global backlash

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Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was under pressure after calls to boycott hotels owned by Brunei.

Brunei will not enforce the death penalty for those convicted of having gay sex following global backlash against the country led by international human rights groups and celebrities.

Key points:

  • The Sultan’s moratorium on the death penalty follows calls for a boycott of hotels owned by the country
  • George Clooney had said people should not stay at Le Plaza Athenee in Paris, London’s Dorchester or the Beverley Hills Hotel
  • No executions have been carried out in Brunei since 1957

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who acts as the country’s Prime Minister, extended a moratorium on the death penalty to legislation prohibiting gay sex, following calls from celebrities such as George Clooney for tourists to boycott his country’s string of luxury hotels.

The small South-East Asian nation sparked an outcry when it rolled out its interpretation of Islamic laws, or sharia, on April 3, punishing sodomy, adultery and rape with death, including by stoning.

Brunei has consistently defended its right to implement the laws, elements of which were first adopted in 2014 and which have been rolled out in phases since then.

However, in a rare response to criticism aimed at the oil-rich state, the sultan said the death penalty would not be imposed in the implementation of the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO).

Some crimes already draw the death penalty in Brunei, including premeditated murder and drug trafficking.

Gay rights around the world

Gay rights around the world

Same-sex marriage is legal in Australia after a hard-fought campaign and a voluntary national postal survey. But elsewhere in the world gay people can struggle to simply stay out of jail.

“I am aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation of the SPCO. However, we believe that once these have been cleared the merit of the law will be evident,” the sultan said in a speech ahead of the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“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. This will also be applied to cases under the SPCO which provides a wider scope for remission.”

While permitted for some crimes, no executions have been carried out in Brunei since 1957.

The vastly wealthy sultan, who once piloted his own 747 airliner to meet former United States president Barack Obama, often faces criticism from activists who view his absolute monarchy as despotic. But it is unusual for him to respond.

Le Plaza Athenee Hotel

The sultan’s office released an official English translation of his speech, which is not common practice.

“Both the common law and the Syariah [sharia] law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country,” he said.

“They are also crucial in protecting the morality and decency of the country as well, as the privacy of individuals.”

The law’s implementation, which the United Nations condemned, prompted Mr Clooney and rights groups to seek a boycott on hotels owned by Brunei, including the Le Plaza Athenee in Paris, Dorchester in London and the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.

Several multinational companies have since put a ban on staff using Brunei’s hotels, while some travel companies have stopped promoting Brunei as a tourist destination.