The sultan of oil-rich Brunei on Thursday announced the start of a new criminal code based on sharia law that will eventually prescribe punishments that include amputation and stoning, the first of Southeast Asia's predominantly Muslim countries to impose the harsh form of Islamic law.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah celebrated the new legal code as obedience to "God's command, as written in the Koran." Human rights advocates around the world have criticized the action as "draconian" and "medieval."
Under the first phase, fines and jail terms were introduced Thursday for offenses that include failure to attend Friday prayers, indecent behavior and pregnancies outside of marriage, the Star Online regional news site reported.
The law applies to those of all religions in the sultanate, where Muslim Malays constitute a 70% majority of the country's 400,000 citizens, the news agency reported. Non-Muslim Chinese account for about 15% of Brunei's population.
A second phase of the law, which will come into force later this year, provides for severing of limbs and flogging for property crimes. A third phase set for late 2015 will allow the justice system to sentence offenders to death by stoning for crimes including adultery and gay sex.
Human Rights Campaign, a U.S.-based group that advocates for gay and transgender rights, condemned Brunei's action as "draconian penal code reforms ... that will soon include stoning as a possible punishment for engaging in same-sex activity."
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the Brunei legal code for its planned application of death sentences for rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations, insulting verses of the Koran and murder.
"The death penalty for such a broad range of offenses contravenes international law," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. rights office, said at a news conference in Geneva last month.
"Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited," Colville said.
The decision by the all-powerful sultan to introduce sharia law spurred rare domestic criticism of the ruler on social media, according to news agencies in the Brunei capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. The 67-year-old sultan ordered a stop to the criticism, and it has largely ceased, Star Online reported.