Students receive open letter on the review of Sultan of Brunei’s honorary doctorate

On Wednesday the 24th of April, the Chairman of King’s College Council sent an open letter to King’s students, addressing the issue of the formal review of the Sultan’s honorary doctorate and condemning the new penal code that went into effect in Brunei exactly three weeks prior.

What is Sharia law in Brunei?

Sharia law is Islamic law based primarily on the Quran and other writings. Although it can be interpreted in several ways, Brunei introduced a harsh version of it in 2014, giving the country a dual legal system of both common and Sharia law.

On 3rd April 2019, a new penal code that initiated the second phase of Sharia law was implemented in the country despite worldwide condemnation. In accordance with this, strict Islamic laws were enforced that made anal sex, adultery and abortion punishable by stoning to death. Lesbian sex, on the other hand, was made punishable by 40 strokes of the cane and imprisonment for up to ten years, while those who wore clothes that did not conform to their gender were punishable by whipping.

These laws are applicable to all individuals who have hit puberty, which may include people who are considered minors in other countries.

International outrage

Homosexuality has been illegal in Brunei ever since the country gained independence from the British. It was initially punishable by up to 10 years in prison, while lesbian sex was punishable by imprisonment and a fine.

The implementation of the new penal code has made punishments more radical and has sparked international outrage.

The United Nations has called the “cruel, inhuman and degrading” laws gross violations of human rights. According to Human Rights Watch, the legislation has also defied international law that protects protects adultery and homosexuality against the death penalty.

Moreover, a majority of European nations, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom have voted in favour of a resolution condemning the new penal code. The European Parliament, responding to this outrage, has called on the European Union to freeze assets and issue visa bans.

Celebrities have also taken to social media to express their anger, with individuals such as Ellen DeGeneres and George Clooney calling for the blacklisting of nine hotels owned by Brunei Investment Agency – including the Beverly Hills Hotel in the USA and the Dorchester in the UK.

Brunei’s Defence

In a statement released on the 30th of March, the Prime Minister’s Office said that Brunei is “a sovereign Islamic and fully independent country” and thus has the power to “enforce its own rule of laws.”

The statement further said that “apart from criminalising and deterring acts that are against the teachings of Islam,” the Shariah Law also “aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race.”

Furthermore, on the 15th of April, Brunei sent a four-page letter to the European Parliament asking for “tolerance, respect, understanding” and attempting to clarify its stance.

The letter stated: “the criminalisation of adultery and sodomy is to safeguard the sanctity of family lineage and marriage to individual Muslims, particularly women.

“It must be appreciated that the diversities in culture, traditional and religious values in the world means that there is no one standard that fits all.”

In a bid to further justify its legislation, the letter also stated that sentences of death by stoning for adultery, sodomy and abortion would have “extremely high evidentiary threshold, requiring no less than two or four men of high moral standing and piety as witnesses.”

King’s Stance

In light of the imposition of Brunei’s anti-LGBT+ legislation, King’s has been called upon by various individuals and institutions to rescind its honorary doctorate that was awarded to the 72-year old Hassanal Bolkiah – the Sultan of Brunei – in 2011.

To the BBC, Georgie Spearing, president of KCL’s LGBT+ Society, said: “It is entirely wrong for our institution to tacitly endorse a man who would have our LGBT+ community at KCL stoned to death.

“A small step in the right direction is to rescind the honours degree, but far more structural changes need to occur to increase the quality of university life for our LGBT+ students.”

In response to this, King’s students received an open letter earlier today from the Chairman of King’s College Council, condemning Brunei’s legislation and addressing the removal of the Sultan’s honorary doctorate.

The letter stated: “King’s does not presume to weigh heavily in relations between states. But we have a voice. Ours may be just one among many, but it is a voice of the conscience and principles that direct and animate this university.

“The Council of King’s College London has already announced that it will formally review the award in 2011 of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, to His Majesty the Sultan and Yang di-Pertuan of Brunei, in whom is vested the country’s supreme executive authority.

“The Fellowships and Honorary Degrees Committee will shortly be meeting to recommend a course of action to Council. As an important matter of procedure, the university will then, through the good offices of Brunei’s High Commissioner to London, invite His Majesty to respond.

“Subsequently, the Council will consider both the Committee’s recommendation and any response from the Sultan before reaching its own decision.”

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