Sultan Bolkiah
© Global Look Press / Zheng Huansong
Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam
A harsher version of penal code, which includes sharia-based punishments for things like adultery and same-sex relations, is to come into force next week in Brunei. The 'human rights defenders' in Washington, however, are silent.

Brunei, a tiny Muslim-majority absolute monarchy located in Southeastern Asia is about to put into force the last amendment to its criminal code as part of a reform initiated back in 2014. The renewed code, which is aimed at reflecting Islam's tenets of morality and punishment for those who break them, will include caning and even stoning to death of Muslims, who are found guilty of adultery, sodomy and rape.

The government wanted to roll in the new laws in stages, but put the process on pause after international public outcry over the milder phase one, which included fines and jail terms for offenders, but not corporal punishment. Last week a rights group reported that Brunei quietly announced earlier this year the date, when the harsher version of the code would come into force: April 3.

"We are trying to get pressure placed on the government of Brunei but realise there is a very short time frame until the laws take effect," Matthew Woolfe an Australia-based founder of the group, the Brunei Project, told Reuters. "It took us by surprise that the government has now given a date and is rushing through implementation."

Homosexuality was outlawed in Brunei even before the 2014 reform and in fact since colonial times, with jail sentences of up to 10 years possible. If its government goes ahead with the plan, the nation will become the first in Asia to allow punishing gay people by death. At the moment only a handful of nations like Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have such provisions in their law.

The news has horrified some international rights groups. Amnesty International, in particular, decried the introduction of "cruel and inhuman penalties" and called on the world to "urgently condemn Brunei's move to put these cruel penalties into practice."

However, the US has so far stayed conspicuously silent on the issue. Washington, which actively develops economic ties with the oil-rich nation while regularly holding annual naval drills with a particular focus on maritime security in the South China Sea, has not yet issued a single statement on the latest developments in Brunei.

And neither did London, which also enjoys "close ties" with its former protectorate. Although, one could hardly expect any damning statements from the US aimed at the Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The man, who recently described the amendment of the penal code as "a great achievement," has traditionally enjoyed warm relations with the White House, which were sometimes marked by some extraordinary gifts like jewelry worth $71,468 presented to the former first lady, Michelle Obama, by the Queen of Brunei back in 2013.

However, such a situation would probably surprise no one. The fact that another of Washington's major allies - Saudi Arabia - also punishes same-sex relations by death - alongside adultery, apostasy and blasphemy - never stopped the US from striking billions-worth of deals with Riyadh.

The recent scandal over the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which resulted in global fallout for the Saudis, failed to change the attitude of the White House and the Pentagon to Riyadh.

In theory, Iran-style crippling sanctions of its exports would swiftly change the mind of the Brunei government on whether stoning gays is a good idea. But considering how selective Western powers are in using this tool against nations accused of human right violations, one shouldn't expect such a development anytime soon.