Stars boycott Beverly Hills Hotel over Brunei 'sharia'

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Regan Morris reports on the reason for the protests

Stars of Hollywood are boycotting one of the area's most famous hotels because of a harsh Islamic penal code introduced by Brunei's government.

Comedians Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres are among the celebrities supporting the boycott against the Beverly Hills Hotel and other hotels owned by Brunei.

After a heated debate, the city council unanimously voted to condemn Brunei.

Brunei's leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, announced the first phase of the new penalties last week.

They will eventually include death by stoning for homosexuality and adultery.

The mayor of Beverly Hills, Lili Bosse, had urged the city council to adopt a resolution condemning Brunei's new laws and force the country to sell the hotel and others it owns through the Dorchester Collection chain.

The council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the sultanate but the meeting was divided on whether to boycott the hotel. Many disagreed with Mayor Bosse's decision to no longer attend functions there.

Virgin group founder Richard Branson tweeted on Saturday that his employees and family would not stay at the luxury hotel chain "until the Sultan abides by basic human rights".

Several organisations have cancelled events at the hotel, long a gathering place for Hollywood celebrities, including the Motion Picture & Television Fund's annual Night Before the Oscars charity event and the Feminist Majority Foundation's annual Global Women's Rights Awards.

During a small protest in front of the hotel on Monday, Mr Leno said: "I'd like to think that all people are basically good and when they realise this is going on, hopefully they'll do something about it."

But Christopher Cowdray, the chief executive of the Dorchester Collection chain, said those protesting have ignored local hotels owned by countries with poor human rights records.

"There are other hotel companies in this city that are owned by Saudi Arabia... you know, your shirt probably comes from a country which has human rights issues," Mr Cowdray said, adding a boycott would hurt local employees the most.

Image source, AFP
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Jay Leno speaks at the protest across from the Beverly Hills Hotel
Image source, Reuters
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The hotel has drawn an elite Hollywood clientele in the past, including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor

Badrul Chowdhury, a waiter who has worked at the hotel for 14 years, told Reuters news agency that events in Brunei were far removed from the lives of hotel workers.

"We work. We take care of our families," he said.

The US government has been largely quiet on the change to Brunei's penal code, but the state department said on Tuesday it had privately relayed concerns to the Brunei government.

The initial phase of the new penal code introduces fines or prison terms for offences including indecent behaviour, failure to attend Friday prayers and pregnancies out-of-wedlock.

The second phase due to start later this year will cover crimes such as theft and robbery and will involve more stringent penalties such as amputations and flogging.

The most severe punishments, such as death by stoning for offences including sodomy and adultery, will be introduced late next year

Brunei officials have previously said that judges would be given discretion in sentencing. It is not clear to what extent the code will apply to non-Muslims.

The tiny state on the island of Borneo has grown rich on oil and gas exports.

Almost three-quarters of those who live there are Malay Muslims, but there are sizeable Buddhist and Christian communities.