1. Updated: 8:37 p.m., ET:
2. This is the tiny country of Brunei, which lies on the island of Borneo, cut from part of Malaysia. Brunei was a big regional player in the 15th century; today the territory is a little smaller than Delaware and population around 422,000.
3. Brunei was a British protectorate until 1984, when it was established as a monarchy headed by the sultan. The constitution also declares Islam the country’s official religion with the sultan as the country’s religious leader.
4. In October 2013, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah proposed imposing Sharia law in the country’s penal code; changes would include sentencing people to death for homosexuality or adultery, and the amputation of limbs as punishment for theft.
5. Attention to the issue rose in the U.S. when LGBTI rights supporters began boycotts of hotels owned personally by the sultan in Los Angeles. Human rights organizations and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights also denounced the provision.
“Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last month.
He noted that “a number of U.N. studies have also revealed that women are more likely to be sentenced to death by stoning” and that “the criminalization and application of the death penalty for consensual relations between adults in private also violates a whole host of rights, including the rights to privacy, to equality before the law, the right to health and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.”
Originally the new code was to take effect on April 22, but it was reportedly delayed until May 1, perhaps in response to international pressure.
6. On Wednesday, the sultan held a ceremony in the country’s international convention center to announce that he would bring the law into effect in three phases, with the first taking effect on May 1.
The first phase would impose new prison sentences for crimes including “disrespecting” the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, failing to perform Friday prayers, and pregnancy outside of marriage. New sentences of flogging and chopping off limbs for crimes like robbery will come into effect later this year, while the new capital offenses will go into effect next year.
“We are repeating the history of Islamic laws that were once observed in Brunei Darussalem centuries ago,” the sultan said in explaining how the law would be implemented.
7. Brunei’s foreign minister, Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng, defended the Sharia law on Friday when his country had its human rights record reviewed by the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission.
“Under the constitution, Islam is the official religion of Brunei Darussalam and its values and teachings continue to be the way of life for its people,” he said. “As such, the activities of the society revolve around its Malay culture and Islamic faith…. The Sharia law has been existent in Brunei Darussalam since the 14th century during the reign of our first monarch. The objective of Sharia law is, of course, to create a society where religion, life, intellect, property and lineage are preserved and protected.”
8. Brunei is tiny country, but its plans could have a wider impact. “It is definitely of major concern in Indonesia and Malaysia,” said Indonesian LGBTI activist Dédé Oetomo, where Islamist politicians have made similar, though yet unsuccessful, attempts.
Brunei is part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with countries including Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, which is working towards greater cultural and economic ties throughout the region.
A fight broke out in 2012 over an unsuccessful effort to include language protecting LGBTI people in an ASEAN human rights declaration, and this could further polarize ASEAN around LGBTI issues. It also could embolden anti-LGBTI forces in Malaysia, which is also officially a Muslim nation.
Indonesia also has a muslim majority, and this could stoke hostility towards LGBTI people there as well.