George Clooney Calls Brunei's Death Penalty Moratorium "a Huge Step Forward"

George Clooney - Getty - H 2019
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The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah on Sunday said that his country would be extending a moratorium on the death penalty as punishment for anti-gay legislation known as Sharia law. The move comes after widespread criticism of the Southeast Asian country and a Hollywood-led boycott of the Sultan-owned Dorchester Collection hotel group, which operates such high-profile local luxury properties as the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air.

“I am aware that there are many questions and misperceptions with regard to the implementation of the Syariah Penal Code Order," the Sultan said in his remarks, referring to Sharia law. "However, we believe that once these have been cleared, the merit of the law will be evident. As evident for more than two decades, we have practiced 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 SPCO which provides a wider scope for remission.”

According to Reuters, the Sultan's comments marked a "rare response to criticism." Also unusual was the fact that the Sultan's official office released an English translation of the speech.

George Clooney, the boycott's leading voice who had written a series of columns for Deadline on the matter, has followed the news of the moratorium and on Monday, his 58th birthday, Clooney released a statement calling it "a huge step forward" following a giant leap backwards. For the actor, however, the boycott is still in place.

"It promises that the citizens of Brunei won’t be executed for being gay. It also sends a very crucial message to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia that there is a cost for enacting these laws. And the cost isn’t folks boycotting their hotels. The cost is that corporations and big banks won’t do business with you," said Clooney. "The financial institutions stepping up had a huge impact. Having said that, the law to stone their citizens is still in place. Meaning that as soon as the pressure dies down they could simply start the process of carrying out executions. So in reference to the boycott everyone should do what they feel is correct. For my family and me we simply can’t walk away until this draconian law is no longer on the books.”

Clooney was joined in the fight by the Human Rights Campaign; high-profile individuals like Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, Sharon Stone and Ellen Pompeo; and activists like James Duke Mason in calling for a boycott of the Dorchester Collection. The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to DeGeneres and Pompeo for their response to the Sultan's speech. 

HRC director of global partnerships Jean Freedberg called the moratorium an important step. "The world has turned its eyes to Brunei in recent months and we urge the countless advocates, activists and organizations who seized this moment to speak out against these human rights abuses to continue to do so," she said. The organization will continue its #EyesOnBrunei digital campaign. "The Trump-Pence administration has so far been silent and must finally join the chorus of voices calling for repeal," added Freedberg.

Sharia law, which calls for stoning, amputation and other penalties for such crimes as theft, adultery and homosexuality, had been on the books in the country since 2014. At that time, Hollywood rallied a boycott of the hotel group as a way of protesting the Sultan's controversial policies. It remained in place for approximately two years, though insiders agree that it had largely faded since 2017.

It is unclear just how much the hotel boycott has affected the Sultan's bottom line. The Dorchester released a statement on April 3 as the laws were due to go into effect, announcing that the group would be deactivating its social media pages "due to the personal abuse directed at our employees for whom we have a duty of care." Since then, there have been no posts on Dorchester Collection's Twitter or Instagram accounts.