If Brunei's new stoning law is enforced, sanction the sultan

This month, the Sultanate of Brunei confirmed plans to impose a new penal code with brutal punishments. These include whipping or death by stoning for extramarital sex and anal sex, among other things, and amputations of limbs for theft. Abortion is also criminalized, and lesbian sex is punished by 40 lashes.

Many of these new “crimes” were already prohibited under the country’s Syariah Penal Code Order, published in October 2013, but had not been enforced.

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Criminalizing extramarital or homosexual sexual activity is contrary to international human rights norms, and the code’s punishments amount to grave human rights violations under international treaties prohibiting torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Not surprisingly, the new Shariah (Islamic law) code has been condemned by several governments, the United Nations, and human rights groups.

Condemnations from activist celebrities such as George Clooney and others have included calls for boycotts of businesses owned by the Sultan of Brunei, such as the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles and the Dorchester Hotel in London. Investment companies are now publicly weighing the reputational risk of doing business with Brunei or businesses funded or supported by the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

However, there is another, more targeted way to put pressure on Brunei to abandon these provisions: impose sanctions on the sultan. Governments that really want to send a tough message should be informing Brunei that any of its government officials implicated in the execution of the country’s new law and punishments, including the sultan, could face travel bans and financial sanctions, including seizure of their assets.

In recent years, the United States and several other countries have adopted Global Magnitsky laws that can be used to impose financial sanctions, seize property and bank accounts, and impose travel restrictions on government officials implicated in the commission of gross human rights abuses. These laws are named after a Russian whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky, who was killed in 2009 while in Russian custody, in retaliation for exposing corruption.

Global Magnitsky laws differ slightly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and are being adopted differently in the European Union, but they have a common basis. They allow governments to seize assets, freeze bank accounts and bar travel by government officials implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations.

Those responsible for imposing stoning, amputating, or whipping of criminal suspects would meet these laws’ criteria, and the sultan himself could be sanctioned for imposing the new code and ordering its execution.

Foreign government officials should be putting Brunei on notice that they intend to use these laws if Brunei carries out the country’s horrific legal provisions. Concerned governments should be warning the sultan that they can seize his extensive properties — the luxury hotels, a polo park, and several major estates and homes around Kensington and Ascot in London — while cutting him off from banking systems and preventing him from traveling through their territory.

This approach would potentially impose less harm on the workers of the many establishments owned by the sultan or the government, because if handled responsibly in escrow, even after seizure in many cases the businesses could continue to operate.

A government that criminalizes private sexual activity and then imposes brutal execution and torture as the punishment should not be tolerated anywhere in the world. Criticism and condemnation are not enough. It’s time for Brunei and its ruler to face consequences.

John Sifton is the Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSifton.