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Brunei Begins Phasing in Strict Version of Islamic Law

Brunei has begun phasing in a strict form of Islamic law that calls for harsh punishments including flogging, severing of limbs and stoning.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has hailed the new criminal code as a "great achievement" for the Southeast Asian nation of just over 400,000 people.

Under the first phase introduced Thursday, citizens can be fined or jailed for offenses such as indecent behavior or failing to perform Friday prayers.

More severe punishments will be introduced soon. This includes severing of limbs or beatings for theft. It also includes death by stoning for sodomy and adultery.

Brunei Islamic authorities defend the punishments, saying a high degree of proof will be required. They also claim Brunei's mainly Muslim population supports the laws.

Sam Zarifi , Regional Director of the Asia and Oceania division of the International Commission of Jurists, says public opinion is irrelevant when it comes to such extreme laws.

"In terms of international law and Brunei's obligations, frankly, it doesn't matter. Brunei has committed itself and international law is very clear that you can't kill people by stoning them. That's just illegal no matter where you are, no matter what the vote is."

Zarifi tells VOA that Brunei's dictatorial government makes it "essentially impossible" to discern whether the public would support the new code.

"Remember, this is as authoritarian a one-man government as you can get. It has been under a state of emergency for decades. The sultan is the government. There are no other real branches of government."

Many Brunei citizens have taken to social media to criticize and ridicule the new laws. In response, the sultan has threatened to punish them using the criminal code.

The sultan, one of the world's richest men, exercises near complete control over the energy-rich country. He said in a speech Wednesday the new code is "not for fun, but is to obey Allah's command as written in the Quran."

Interpretations of Islamic law vary widely in Muslim-majority countries where it is practiced, as there is no single document in which it is explicitly outlined.

Brunei is the first Southeast Asian country to enforce a sharia-compliant criminal code at the national level.

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