A new criminal law that could include penalties like amputation for theft and stoning for adultery will be enforced for Muslims in Brunei in six months, its ruling sultan announced.
Brunei's Shariah Islamic court had previously handled mainly family-related disputes. The sultan has been hoping to implement the new law for years to bolster the influence of Islam in the tiny, oil-rich monarchy on Southeast Asia's Borneo island.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said the Shariah Penal Code should be regarded as a form of "special guidance" from God and would be "part of the great history" of Brunei.
"By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled," the sultan said at a legal conference in Brunei's capital.
'Guarantees justice for everyone'
The law would apply only to Muslims, who comprise about two-thirds of the population of nearly 420,000 people. The others follow mainly Buddhist, Christian and indigenous beliefs.
Brunei's Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz, the country's top Islamic scholar, told Tuesday's conference that the Shariah law "guarantees justice for everyone and safeguards their well-being."
"Let us not just look at the hand-cutting or the stoning or the caning per se, but let us also look at the conditions governing them," Awang said. "It is not indiscriminate cutting or stoning or caning. There are conditions and there are methods that are just and fair."
Under secular laws, Brunei already prescribes caning as a penalty for crimes including immigration offences, for which convicts can be flogged with a rattan cane. Awang said there should be no concerns that foreign travellers might end up avoiding Brunei after the law is implemented.
'"Let us not just look at the hand-cutting or the stoning or the caning per se, but let us also look at the conditions governing them.' - Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz, country's top Islamic scholar
"Please listen to our answer. Sir, do all potential tourists to Brunei plan to steal? If they do not, then what do they need to fear," he said. "Believe me when I say that with our Shariah criminal law, everyone, including tourists, will receive proper protection."
The implementation of Shariah criminal law is not expected to face vocal opposition in Brunei, which has long been known for conservative policies such as banning the public sale of liquor.
Sultan Hassanal, who has reigned since 1967, is Brunei's head of state with full executive authority. Public criticism of his policies is extremely rare in Brunei.