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Brunei sultan hits back at criticism over Islamic law

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei: Brunei’s all-powerful sultan, stung by rare criticism, has ordered social media users to stop attacking his plans to introduce criminal punishments in the placid oil-rich kingdom.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah — one of the world’s wealthiest men — announced last October that Brunei would phase in 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 Shariah 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.
The country’s dual-track legal system combines civil courts with Shariah courts that have typically handled mainly marital, inheritance and other low-key issues.