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Brunei's sultan widens usage of Sharia

Brunei's sultan says he plans to extend Sharia, or Islamic law, in the oil-rich eastern Asian kingdom in next six months. Penalties could include amputation and stoning. Human Rights Watch says the move is "abhorrent."

Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah told a legal conference in the Borneo island kingdom on Tuesday that Islamic criminal law would be used widely. Brunei's Islamic court had previously used Sharia mainly for family-related disputes.

The Asia deputy director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, described the legal changes planned by the monarch as "abhorrent and absolutely unjustifiable."

Bolkiah told the conference in Brunei's capital Bandar Seri Begawan that the changes would "come into force six months hereafter and in phases."

"By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled," said the sultan, who also holds the post of prime minister.

The sultan, who has full executive authority, has ruled the kingdom of 400,000 people since 1967. Public criticism of his policies is rare. He first called in 1996 for a Sharia criminal code.

Currently dual system

Brunei already has a dual system combining British-style civil law from colonial times and Sharia court practices for marital, inheritance and low-key issues.

Its brand of Islam is regarded as relatively conservative compared to its Muslim neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. Neither practice Sharia punishment, with the exception of the Indonesian region of Aceh.

Brunei's top Islamic scholar, Mufti Awang Abdul Aziz, told a Tuesday conference that the law change would "guarantee justice."

"It is not indiscriminate cutting or stoning or caning. There are conditions and there are methods that are just and fair," he said.

Nearly 70 percent of Brunei's people are Muslim Malays. Ethnic Chinese make up 15 percent. Minorities also include Buddhists and Christians.

Already strictly forbidden is the sale of alcohol and evangelism.

The sultanate was a British protectorate until 1984.

ipj/dr (AFP, Reuters, AP)