BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (AP) -- Brunei on Thursday embraced a form of Islamic Shariah criminal law that includes harsh penalties, a move slammed by international rights group as a step backward for human rights.
The tiny Southeast Asian nation began phasing in a version of Shariah that allows for penalties such as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery. Most of the punishments can be applied to non-Muslims, who account for about one-third of the 440,000 people in the oil-rich country.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has introduced the law as a "great achievement" for Brunei.
"The decision to implement the (Shariah penal code) is not for fun but is to obey Allah's command as written in the Quran," he said in a speech Wednesday to announce the launch first phase of the law.
From Thursday, Brunei citizens can be fined or jailed by Islamic courts for offences like not performing Friday prayers, pregnancy out of wedlock, propagating other religions and indecent behavior.
More severe punishments such as flogging, amputation of limbs and stoning for offences such as theft, adultery and sodomy will be introduced in phases over the next two years.
Human Rights Watch said the move was a "huge step backward for human rights" in Brunei.
"It constitutes an authoritarian move toward brutal medieval punishments that have no place in the modern, 21st century world," said its deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson.
The US-based Human Rights Campaign, which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, condemned the changes as "draconian," saying the death penalty for gay sex, the eighth nation in the world to have such a law, was "horrific and sickening."
Bolkiah has said he didn't expect the international community to accept the law but urged them to respect Brunei's decision.
Brunei is a conservative country where alcohol is banned and Muslim courts already govern family affairs.
Muslims in next door Malaysia are subject to a limited form of Islamic law that doesn't include amputation or capital punishment, as does Aceh province on the western tip of Indonesia.
In general, the interpretation and practice of Islam in Southeast Asia is more liberal than in parts of the Middle East and South Asia.