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Gay sex now officially punishable by death by stoning in Brunei

Celebrities boycott Brunei-linked hotels

Singapore New Islamic criminal laws took effect in Brunei on Wednesday that make gay sex and adultery punishable by stoning offenders to death. The laws have triggered an outcry from countries, rights groups and celebrities far beyond the tiny Southeast Asian nation's shores.

The penalties were provided for under new sections of Brunei's Shariah Penal Code. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah instituted the code in 2014 to bolster the influence of Islam in the oil-rich monarchy of around 430,000 people, two-thirds of whom are Muslim.

Even before 2014, homosexuality was already punishable in Brunei by a jail term of up to 10 years. But under the new laws - which apply to children and foreigners, even if they are not Muslim - those found guilty of gay sex can be stoned to death or whipped. Adulterers risk death by stoning too, while thieves face amputation of a right hand on their first offense and a left foot on their second.

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Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (C) attends an event in Bandar Seri Begawan on April 3, 2019. Getty

Oppressed at home

"Living in Brunei, we already knew that our sexual identity is taboo and should not be expressed. We already felt belittled before the law came to place," said a 23-year-old member of the LGBTQ community who wanted to be identified only as Kun out of fear of reprisal from the authorities.

"Now with it, we feel even smaller and the ones who could potentially oppress us have more opportunity to harass us to say and do what they want," he said.

There has been no vocal opposition to the new penalties in Brunei, where the sultan rules as head of state with full executive authority. Public criticism of his policies is extremely rare in the country.

Backlash from the West

On Tuesday, the United States joined the United Kingdom, Germany and France in urging Brunei to halt its plans.

"The United States strongly opposes violence, criminalization and discrimination targeting vulnerable groups, including women at risk of violence, religious and ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons," State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.

Celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John and Ellen DeGeneres have voiced opposition to the new laws, and have rallied a boycott of nine hotels in the U.S. and Europe with ties to Hassanal, who is still sultan.

"Are we really going to help fund the murder of innocent citizens?" Clooney wrote Thursday on Deadline Hollywood. Clooney said that while you can't shame "murderous regimes," you can shame "the banks, the financiers and the institutions that do business with them."

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Brunei's government to "stop the entry into force of this Draconian new penal code."

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called on the sultan to "immediately suspend amputations, stoning, and all other rights-abusing provisions and punishments."

Brunei's Southeast Asian neighbors, some of whom also have laws banning sex between men, have remained silent, however.

Brunei adopts death penalty for gay sex and adultery

Anti-LGBTQ laws around the world

According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association's 2019 roundup, consensual same-sex sex acts are still officially or unofficially criminalized in 70 U.N. member nations. The same report said the death penalty could be implemented for consensual same-sex sexual acts in at least 10 nations. That did not include Brunei, as the law has not yet come into effect.  

In neighboring Indonesia, Shariah law is officially implemented in the predominantly Muslim Aceh province, but not nationally. People have been caned for homosexual acts, and even attempted acts, in Aceh.

Under increasing pressure from Amnesty International and other rights groups, Aceh decided last year to move the canings out of the public eye and conduct them behind closed doors. For years large crowds had gathered in public to witness the spectacle. 

LGBTQ citizens of other nearby Muslim-majority countries were concerned about the broad new penalties in Brunei.

"I am very worried that Indonesia or Malaysia may follow the lead," said a 24-year-old man from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Ludwig. "I think people nowadays, especially the younger generation, are quite OK with LGBT, but those who are not make the loudest noise and they are the reason why it seems like everyone is against it."

Nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 32 million people are Muslim. They are governed by Islamic courts in family, marriage and personal issues. Last year, two Malaysian Muslim women were convicted under Islamic laws and caned for attempting to have sex with each other.

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