Brunei will not impose the death penalty on those convicted of having gay sex, in an apparent bid to temper international condemnation following its roll out of strict new Islamic laws last month.
In a televised speech on Sunday, the country’s ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, said he would extend a moratorium on capital punishment and ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
The announcement follows a global backlash to the country’s announcement in April that it would impose draconian new punishments, including death by stoning, for those convicted of gay sex, adultery and rape.
In a high profile campaign, celebrities, including George Clooney and Elton John, joined rights groups in seeking to boycott hotels owned by the sultan, while large companies including JPMorgan and Deutsche Bank told their staff to avoid using Brunei-owned hotels in the wake of new laws.
The tiny oil-rich Asian kingdom became the first East Asian country to introduce Sharia law at a national level in 2014, introducing the legislation and associated penalties in stages.
The country initially defended its new legal code, claiming it focused “more on prevention and punishment,” but the growing backlash appears to have forced the kingdom’s hand.
In his speech on Sunday, the sultan said there had been a number of “misconceptions” about the laws which he acknowledged may have caused “apprehension.”
“However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident,” he said.
The sultan announced the kingdom’s long-term moratorium on the death penalty would also extend to the new penal code, although he didn’t elaborate whether this was a new decision.
“For more than two decades, we have practiced a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law. This will also be applied to cases under the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO),” the sultan said.
Despite his announcement on the death penalty, Brunei’s leader said Sunday he stood by his new penal code overall.
“Both the common law and the Syariah law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country. They are also crucial in protecting the morality and decency of the public as well as respecting the privacy of individuals,” he said.
LGBT citizens still face punishment
There was widespread relief among LGBT and human rights activists in the wake of the announcement. Celebrations though have so far been muted, amid concerns that the laws themselves remain in place.
Human Rights Campaign Director of Global Partnership Jean Freedberg said the moratorium was an important step but added the new Islamic penal code itself needed to go.
“The world has turned its eyes to Brunei in recent months and we urge the countless advocates, activists and organizations who seized this moment to speak out against these human rights abuses to continue to do so,” she said.
A gay man living inside Brunei, who asked not to be named, said while the sultan’s announcement was “good news,” it did nothing to address widespread homophobia and discrimination in the kingdom.
“If they don’t do anything to show that they are supporting the LGBT community, nothing will change. Religion still has a major effect towards homophobia,” he said.
Even if they weren’t put to death, LGBT citizens of Brunei could still face fines, whipping or jail, said Matthew Woolfe, founder of human rights groups The Brunei Project.
The law is still hanging over the heads of Brunei’s LGBT community, Woolfe said. “There is nothing stopping the Brunei Government from lifting the moratorium at any time.”
CNN’s Chermaine Lee contributed to this article.