Sultan of Brunei said death penalty for gay sex and adultery will no longer be enforced after a global backlash.

Critics also called for the entire abandonment of harsh sharia laws.

READ ALSO: BRUNEI INTRODUCES DEATH SENTENCE FOR GAY SEX, ADULTERY

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in a speech on Sunday night said a moratorium on capital punishment that already applies to Brunei’s regular criminal code would also extend to its new sharia code, which includes death by stoning for various crimes.

Last month, the code, which also punishes theft with the amputation of hands and feet, fully came into force in the small sultanate on Borneo Island.

This made the Island the only country in East or Southeast Asia with sharia law at the national level.

This sparked anger from different corners including the governments and rights groups. The United Nations criticised it as a “clear violation” of human rights while celebrities led by actor George Clooney called for Brunei-owned hotels to be boycotted.

In a televised address, the sultan made his first public comments about the furore and took the rare step of addressing criticism, saying there had been “many questions and misperceptions” regarding the sharia laws.

“Both the common law and the sharia law aim to ensure peace and harmony of the country,” he insisted, according to an official translation of his speech.

Some crimes in Muslim-majority Brunei including murder and drug-trafficking were already punishable with death by hanging under the regular criminal code – which is enforced alongside the sharia code – but no one has been executed for decades.

According to the sultan, “we have practised a de facto moratorium on the execution of death penalty for cases under the common law.

“This will also be applied to cases under the (sharia penal code), which provides a wider scope for remission.”

Rights groups have said the announcement did not go far enough.

“It really doesn’t change anything,” Matthew Woolfe, founder of rights group The Brunei Project, said.

“This announcement does nothing to address the many other human rights concerns about the (sharia code).”

The maximum punishment for gay sex between men under the sharia code is death by stoning, but perpetrators can also be sentenced to lengthy jail terms or caning.

Women convicted of gay sex face up to 40 strokes of the cane or a maximum 10-year jail term.

Whipping and jail terms, as well as severing of limbs for theft, under the new code were not affected by the sultan’s announcement.

It remains unclear how far other sharia punishments would be enforced.

In his speech, Sultan Bolkiah promised Brunei would ratify the United Nations convention against torture which it signed several years ago.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that “the entire law is a human rights-abusing monstrosity that should be scrapped.

“It’s a quaint but unrealistic idea that a temporary moratorium on the death penalty is worth something in a royal dictatorship where the sultan’s word is law.”

While gay Bruneians were relieved the death penalty for homosexual sex would not be enforced, they said the law still encourages discrimination against LGBT people in the former British protectorate of about 400,000 people.

“There will still be hate against LGBT people,” Khairul, a gay man in Brunei who gave only one name, told AFP.

“This law should be changed – as long as it exists, there will always be stigmatisation against LGBT people and non-Muslims in Brunei.”

The sultan – one of the world’s wealthiest men, who has been on the throne over five decades – announced plans for the sharia penal code in 2013.

The first section of the code was introduced in 2014 and included less stringent penalties, such as fines or jail terms for offences including skipping Friday prayers, but introduction of the harsher penalties was delayed after criticism.

According to analysts, the sultan is seeking to burnish his Islamic credentials and shore up support among the country’s conservatives due to the waning fortunes of the oil-dependent economy, which has been badly hit by recession in recent years.