THE MOST famous person to have been accused of theft in Brunei is Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The government said he embezzled almost $15bn from a sovereign-wealth fund, and pursued him in courts around the world until he agreed to make some restitution. He has a reputation as a philanderer, too. Several women have claimed that he kept them in sexual slavery in a crowded harem. (The prince named one of his yachts Tits and its two tenders Nipple 1 and Nipple 2.) And then there is the question of the vast personal wealth of the sultan himself, who rules the tiny, oil-soaked sliver of Borneo as an absolute monarch. He owns a gold-plated Rolls-Royce, and lives in a palace with air-conditioned stables for 200 polo ponies, which, although perfectly legal, could be seen as wholesale theft from his 430,000 subjects, who derive far less benefit from Brunei’s resources than he does.
The sultan, presumably, did not have that kind of theft in mind when he pushed for the adoption of a harsh Islamic penal code, which came into force on April 3rd. Among other brutal punishments, it calls for the amputation of a hand or foot as punishment for thieves, and death by stoning for adultery or sex outside marriage. Sex between two men, anal sex and insulting the Prophet are also all punishable by stoning. Whipping is prescribed for all manner of crimes; children are not necessarily exempt.
In practice, the barbarity will probably be limited. For one thing, multiple witnesses to the crimes in question are required for these grisly sentences to be applied. Brunei’s prosecutors do not seem that zealous. Although the death penalty has long been on the books, there have been no executions since 1957.
Yet there is no guarantee that Brunei’s courts will not implement the new laws. And even if they hesitate, it remains striking that the sultan, without any obvious prodding from his subjects, felt it necessary to bolster his legitimacy by espousing such a cruel interpretation of Islam. Perhaps he wanted to distract them from other, even less defensible aspects of his rule.