Western boycotts soften Brunei’s sharia law

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has stepped back from new anti-gay measures amid celebrity-led calls to boycott his Western-held commercial interests

Amid a global outcry against Brunei’s implementation of Islamic sharia law measures that allow for death by stoning for sex between men and extramarital affairs, the sultanate’s ruler has apparently climbed down from the harshest measures in what some have interpreted as a bid to shield his nation’s besieged overseas commercial interests.

The United Nations, United States and other Western governments had all lodged their concerns over the strict new measures. Hollywood celebrities, meanwhile, had called for a boycott of luxury hotels in Europe and the US owned by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, exclusive properties known collectively as the Dorchester Collection.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the small oil-rich sultanate’s absolute ruler, had previously defended his nation’s right to implement the code, part of his move towards what some see as the most extreme interpretation of sharia law. Apart from death by stoning for sexual offenses, the law also allows for amputation of limbs for theft and whipping for other violations.

In a televised May 5 speech, the 72-year-old monarch appeared to step back from those measures, declaring first that Brunei would ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and that it would not enforce the death penalty on those convicted under new religious laws. He also claimed the “privacy of individuals” would be respected.

Addressing the controversial legislation for the first time since its introduction on April 3, the sultan cited “many questions and misperceptions” over the implementation of Islamic law and said he would extend a moratorium on capital punishment under the new laws that already applies to the regular criminal code.

Though offenses such as murder and drug trafficking are punishable by the death penalty under Brunei’s criminal code, executions have not been carried out in the country since 1957. Hassanal did not elaborate on whether this was a new decision, nor did he address other punishments such as whipping and amputation.

“Allah, the provider of blessings, will never bestow upon us laws meant to inflict cruelty on others,” he said in the address marking the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “We are conscious of the fact that misperceptions may cause apprehension. However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident.”

Atypically, the sultan’s office released an official English translation of the speech, indicating a desire to temper the international backlash that has flared over fears that the strict penal code would lead to the persecution or death of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

There are signs that the boycott against properties owned by the Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), a government arm, championed by actor George Clooney, musician Elton John and others has gained traction. Multinational banks such as JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank, CitiGroup, and Goldman Sachs all banned their employees from staying at Dorchester Collection-operated luxury hotels.

Brunei’s commercial interests are being affected elsewhere, too. According to Bloomberg, real estate firms in the United Kingdom have either shunned invitations from the sovereign fund to consult on its redevelopment of Lansdowne House, a prestigious office building in London’s West End acquired by BIA in the 1990s, or sought first clarification on the new laws.

Royal Brunei Airlines, the sultanate’s flagship carrier, is also feeling the pinch with reports of public relations firms in the UK declining offers to help sell Brunei as a travel and tourism destination. STA Travel, an international travel agency, went as far as severing ties with the airline, which accounts for 80% of the seats flown to and from the country.

Brunei’s ruler “clearly underestimated the damage this law would cause to the Brunei brand,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Asia Times. “It’s not just Brunei’s overseas hotels that are taking the hit but partners in the petroleum industry are asking tough questions about the likely fate of LGBT persons under this law.”

Royal Dutch Shell, the joint owner of Brunei’s biggest oil and gas venture responsible for some 90% of the country’s energy sector revenues, recently came under pressure when Eumedion, a Dutch corporate governance group comprised of top Shell shareholders, called on it to press for the improvement of LGBT rights in Brunei.

“This moratorium on the death penalty doesn’t go nearly far enough, it’s clear the sultan is only addressing the most horrific part of the law in the hope of blunting international criticism and anger,” Robertson said, adding that remarks by Brunei’s ruler showed that “the international campaign on Brunei is working, and now more pressure is needed.”

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