BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei - The Sultan of Brunei on Tuesday announced the phased introduction of tough Islamic punishments including death by stoning for crimes such as adultery, in the monarchy's latest step towards conservatism.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah -- one of the world's wealthiest men -- said in a speech that a new Sharia Penal Code which has been in the works for years had been gazetted Tuesday and would "come into force six months hereafter and in phases".
Based on the details of particular cases, punishments can include stoning to death for adulterers, severing of limbs for theft and flogging for violations ranging from abortion to consumption of alcohol, according to a copy of the code.
"By the grace of Allah, with the coming into effect of this legislation, our duty to Allah is therefore being fulfilled," said the sultan, now 67 years old.
An all-powerful figure whose family has ruled the languid, oil-rich country of 400,000 for six centuries, the sultan first called in 1996 for the introduction of sharia criminal punishments.
Brunei already practices a conservative brand of Islam relative to its Muslim neighbours in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The sale and public consumption of alcohol are banned and authorities closely restrict the activities of other religions.
It was not immediately clear how aggressively the new criminal code, which applies only to Muslims, would be implemented.
Brunei already has a dual-track system combining civil courts based on British law -- the sultanate was a British protectorate until 1984 -- and Sharia courts that are currently limited to personal and family issues such as marriage disputes.
Two years ago, a top official in the Attorney-General's office said Brunei would apply an extremely high burden of proof for sharia criminal infractions under the code, and that judges would have wide discretion in applying the Islamic punishments.
The comments were aimed at easing fears expressed by some Bruneians of a lurch toward draconian punishments.
Nearly 70 percent of Brunei's people are Muslim ethnic Malays, while about 15 percent are non-Muslim ethnic Chinese, followed by indigenous peoples and other groups.
Funded by oil and gas wealth mainly in offshore fields in the South China Sea, Brunei has one of Asia's highest standards of living.
The government provides citizens with free medical care and education through the university level.
But the sultan has leaned increasingly towards Islamic orthodoxy in recent years, including the introduction of mandatory religious education for all Muslim children and ordering all businesses in the country closed for two hours during Friday prayers.