Brunei sultan hits back at rare criticism over sharia
Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah speaks during the closing ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bandar Seri Begawan, on October 10, 2013 - by Roslan Rahman
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah -- one of the world's wealthiest men -- announced last October that Brunei would phase in sharia law punishments such as flogging, severing limbs and death by stoning beginning April 1.
The move has sparked a growing outcry on social media, the only outlet for public criticism of authorities in the Muslim country where questioning the 67-year-old sultan is taboo.
In a weekend speech, the sultan issued a clear threat to the critics.
"They cannot be allowed to continue committing these insults, but if there are elements which allow them to be brought to court, then the first phase of implementing the Syariah Penal Code Order in April will be very relevant to them," he said, according to a copy of his speech published by state media.
He did not specify how social media users could be prosecuted under Islamic law.
The sultan remains a revered figure in the tiny realm of 400,000 -- which enjoys some of the highest living standards in Asia -- and his word is unquestioned.
But in recent weeks a heated online debate has erupted in the easy-going country between sharia's supporters and those fearful of it.
"It is truly frightening to think that we might potentially be stoned to death for being lovers, that we may be fined for being of a different sexual orientation, and that what we wear will be regulated," one recent posting said.
Brunei has some of Asia's highest rates of Internet penetration and social media use.
Sharia punishments can include stoning to death for adultery, severing of limbs for theft, and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to alcohol consumption to homosexuality.
The country already practices a more conservative form of Islam compared to its Muslim neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, banning the sale and public consumption of alcohol and closely restricting other religions.
Its dual-track legal system combines civil courts with sharia courts that have typically handled mainly marital, inheritance and other low-key issues.
But Hassanal has increasingly advocated strengthening Islam in the face of potentially harmful outside influences, including the Internet, and has warned of rising crime.
In his speech, he called his Islamic monarchy a "firewall" against globalisation.
Officials have previously said sharia cases would require an extremely high burden of proof and judges would have wide discretion applying it.
Overseas human right groups have denounced the move.
The sultan's wealth -- estimated at $20 billion by Forbes magazine in 2011 -- has become legendary with reports of a vast collection of luxury vehicles and gold-bedecked palaces.
The monarchy was deeply embarrassed by a sensational family feud between the sultan and his younger brother Jefri who allegedly embezzled $15 billion in the 1990s.
Court battles and exposes revealed salacious details of Jefri's un-Islamic jet-set lifestyle, including allegations of a high-priced harem of Western paramours and a luxury yacht he owned called "Tits".
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