The controversial shari’a-based penal code was enacted by the Sultan of Brunei on May 1. Invoking the same shari’a obligations, the jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) enforces similar punishments in areas under its control.
Kerry’s meeting with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was one of several bilaterals held in Jakarta on the sidelines of the inauguration of Indonesia’s new leader, President Joko Widodo.
The sultan’s office said in a brief statement afterwards that the two had “discussed bilateral issues and cooperation between Brunei and the United States, and exchanged views on regional and international matters of mutual concern.”
As Kerry flew to Jakarta earlier, a senior State Department official told reporters that ISIS would top the agenda during the secretary’s meetings with various leaders. Apart from the Bruneian leader, they included the prime ministers of Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, and the Philippines’ foreign secretary.
“The bilateral meetings provide an opportunity for Secretary Kerry to consult, coordinate, and strategize on pressing issues of today,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity. “I would put at the top of the list the international effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”
The official said this would include “the effort to combat violent extremism, to block recruitment, and to protect against the solicitation of foreign fighters – terrorist fighters from Southeast Asia to the Middle East; to guard against the return of hardened fighters to the region; debunking and denigrating extremist propaganda; blocking illicit terrorist financing, and so on.”
The official added that Kerry would speak to the leaders about ways to ensure that “Southeast Asia remains immune to the proselytizing efforts of ISIL,” as well as measures “to rebut the false ideology.”
Refuting the jihadists’ claim to be acting in accordance with Islamic principles is one of the five main thrusts of the anti-ISIS campaign spearheaded by the Obama administration.
Brunei is a former British colony located on the island of Borneo, a member of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and one of 11 countries negotiating the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.
Although smaller than Delaware and with a population below 430,000, it is viewed by the administration as strategically important, and Kerry visited twice in 2013.
Brunei’s new shari’a-based penal code, which is being implemented in stages, includes the death penalty for offenses such as apostasy, adultery, extramarital sexual relations and sodomy.
Theft of goods worth more than a stipulated value is punishable by amputation of the right hand, and anyone convicted of denigrating the teachings of the Qur’an faces lashing and imprisonment of up to 30 years.
Other offenses, punishable by imprisonment or fines, include drinking liquor in a public place, being in too close proximity to an unrelated Muslim of the opposite sex, the wearing of “indecent” clothing and committing an act of “indecent behavior” in public.
According to the wording of the penal code, “Indecent behavior is anything that tarnishes the image of Islam, depraves a person, brings bad influence, or causes anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”
Trying to convert a Muslim an offense
At least 20 percent of Brunei’s people are not Muslim, but many of the penalties in the new code affect non-Muslims too.
For instance, the code prohibits the proselytizing of any religion other than Islam to a Muslim or to someone with no religious affiliation. So if a Christian shared his faith with a Muslim or with someone who professed no faith, and that person embraced Christianity, the person who facilitated the conversion could be imprisoned for up to five years, or face a fine of around $16,000.
More than 100 members of Congress urged Kerry and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman last June to make Brunei’s continued participation in the TPP negotiations contingent on it addressing the rights violations inherent in the new penal code.
The office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has also criticized key elements of Brunei’s new law. Spokesman Rupert Colville said last April that stoning to death “constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited” under international law.
Shari’a-based punishments including public beheadings, stoning to death, limb amputations and the death penalty for apostasy are enforced to varying degrees in several other Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan.