The Australian government will question Brunei over its new criminal law regime – whose punishments include limb amputation for theft and stoning to death for adultery or homosexuality – before deciding whether to proceed with trade negotiations with the tiny, but oil-rich, Sultanate.
The dictatorship on the island of Borneo faces increasing international hostility over its draconian new laws, and democratic countries are being urged to break off trade talks in protests.
The United Nations called the laws illegal and inhuman. Amnesty International says they will send the country “back to the Dark Ages”.
Australia is in negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Brunei is one of four founding members, along with Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.
Australia, Japan and the US are among seven Asia-Pacific nations looking to join the pact.
Completed, the TPP would be one of the biggest free trade agreements in the world. Joining the TPP would give Australia greater and easier access to regional markets, the pact aims to set common standards on issues from labour to intellectual property, and to cut tariffs on traded goods. But critics say it could compromise environmental protections and allow foreign companies to sue Australian governments for policies that hurt their profits.
A spokesman for Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the government needed more information on Brunei’s new laws, before it could decide whether to continue negotiations.
“Australian officials are seeking clarification on the implementation of this law from the Bruneian government and until such clarification is forthcoming any outcome cannot be speculated upon,” the spokesman said.
On May 1, the Sultan of Brunei, Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, introduced the first of three phases in adopting a penal code based on Islamic law, or Sharia.
The first phase imposes fines and jail terms for offences such as pregnancy outside of marriage, failure to perform Friday prayers, and proselytising religions other than Islam.
The second tranche of laws, to come into force later this year, will punish crimes such as alcohol consumption or theft with whipping and amputations.
The final phase will impose the death penalty, including by stoning, for adultery, sodomy, and insulting the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad.
Most of the laws will also apply to non-Muslims. About 78 per cent of Bruneians are Muslim, but there are significant Christian and Buddhist minorities.
Sharia courts are common in Muslim majority countries, but in most cases, their remit extends only to family matters such as marriage and inheritance. Brunei is the first East Asian country to introduce Islamic criminal law.
In the US, the Obama administration is under increasing pressure to abandon the TPP negotiations because of Brunei.
Recently 119 members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry and to US Trade Ambassador Michael Froman: “Our trade agreements should insist that participating countries adhere to internationally recognised civil, political and human rights standards … we urge you to insist that Brunei address these human rights violations as a condition before the United States enters into any trade negotiations.”
Mr Robb said this month he expected the TPP agreement to be completed next year.
“It is probably 80 to 85 per cent there. But of course the end of every trade agreement is the hard part. So we’re into all the market access negotiations. I can see how this TPP can be concluded but it probably will take until the first half of next year.”
Friday marked a global day of protests against Brunei, with demonstrations outside hotels owned by the Sultan, including the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.
Brunei, a tiny former British protectorate of about 400,000 people, sits between two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It relies on oil and gas exports for its prosperity, with an annual per capita income of nearly $50,000. But its economy has faltered in the past year – crude oil exports fell by a third – and there are concerns for the country’s future when already-depleted oil and gas reserves run out.
The 67-year-old Sultan is one of the richest men in the world. Worth an estimated $20 billion, he is famous for his lavish lifestyle, grand palaces, collection of thousands of sports cars, and for reportedly paying Michael Jackson $17 million to perform at his 50th birthday party.
A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said Brunei’s new laws were illegal.
“Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited,” Rupert Colville said.
Amnesty International said Brunei’s “shocking new penal code will take the country back to the Dark Ages when it comes to human rights”.
Brunei’s religious affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The story Australia to question Brunei over stoning laws before trade talks first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.