Brunei’s gay sex death penalty would usher in a new Stone Age

by Sivananthi Thanenthiran | Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW)
Friday, 29 March 2019 14:13 GMT

Birds fly past the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, April 10, 2015. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The introduction of stoning as a death sentence sets a new low bar for human rights in Southeast Asia

Sivananthi Thanenthiran is the executive director of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), a regional NGO based in Malaysia championing sexual and reproductive health

Brunei has been gradually implementing and enforcing Sharia law on the 430,000 citizens and foreigners living within its borders since 2014, meting out flogging and amputation of limbs for crimes such as theft and robbery.

From April 3 the tiny country  in Southeast Asia will introduce death by stoning as the punishment for homosexuality and adultery.

Stoning – an ancient, brutal method of capital punishment – is slower than other methods of capital punishment and is a form of execution by torture.

The introduction of stoning as a death sentence sets a new low bar for human rights in the region.

Same-sex relations are still a crime in 70 countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

Six of these – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia - punish homosexuality with death. Brunei will now become the seventh, if it decides to go ahead on April 3.

Brunei’s neighbours in ASEAN – including Malaysia, which caned two women six times and fined them for what it called 'attempted lesbian sex' – have maintained a deathly silence over how this will affect regional norms.

It could also lead fundamentalist groups to bay for the introduction and implementation of harsh and cruel punishments for personal life choices that are currently not considered criminal.

Stoning as a death sentence flouts four key premises of international human rights standards.

Firstly, the death penalty itself. Punishments such as the death penalty are derived from beliefs such as, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life’. These are outdated and contrary to established human rights standards.

Most arguments for the abolition of the death penalty centre around the possibility of an innocent being wrongly killed. There is also strong evidence that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent.

Secondly, to legislate methods of torture as a means of capital punishment enshrines state impunity at the highest levels.

The power of the state, in this context, is embodied in one person, who himself is exempt from these laws. It is a chilling signal of skewed nature of this particular justice system.

Thirdly, in legislating and punishing sexual behaviour, the state encroaches onto the private lives and private behaviours of individuals.

These punishments are efforts by the state to define, determine and ensure adherence to its ideals of love, relationships and marriage.

Only sexual activity within marriage is deemed legal and permissible, and compulsory heterosexuality is the norm imposed on individuals and couples.

This theocratic framework fails to recognise ideas such as individual autonomy and consent.

Marital rape, then, is a non-consideration, while consensual extramarital relations are illegal. And it is women, girls, and LGBT+ people who suffer.

The Sharia laws of Brunei also infringe on citizens’ rights to privacy – that sexuality and sexual behaviour is a private matter, and that one’s sexual orientation should be determined by the individual and not the state.

Lastly, the sentence of death by stoning for gay sex is applicable to both Muslims and non-Muslims, which violates freedom of religion and belief by imposing the laws, beliefs and punishments on non-practitioners to the extent that they can lose their lives for these beliefs.

Theocratic states insidiously apply the machinery of the state to force their religious beliefs on all citizens irrespective of religious affiliation. Freedom of religion must also necessarily include freedom from religion.

These laws take the phrase ‘Welcome to the Stone Age’ to a new level.

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