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Amid boycott of Beverly Hills Hotel, city confronts Brunei over sharia law

The Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Sultan of Brunei, is seen during a protest over Brunei's strict sharia law penal code in Beve
The Beverly Hills Hotel, which is owned by the Sultan of Brunei, is seen during a protest over Brunei's strict sharia law penal code in Beve

By Dana Feldman

BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - The City of Beverly Hills voted unanimously on Tuesday to pressure the government of Brunei to divest the Beverly Hills Hotel, the pink-hued haunt of the Hollywood set, after the small country's enactment of sharia law prompted protests.

Comedians Ellen DeGeneres, Jay Leno and British entrepreneur Richard Branson have been the most prominent figures to advocate shunning the hotel and its bungalows, a favored locale for the Hollywood elite since it opened a century ago.

The resolution urges Brunei to divest its ownership of the hotel, and any other properties it owns within Beverly Hills, and condemns it and other countries that operate under Islamic criminal law.

Emotions were high in the packed council chambers as scores of rank-and-file employees, as well as residents and others, expressed opposition to human rights abuses, support for the fabled property, as well as a reliance on the hotel for jobs.

"This is misguided," Robert Anderson told Reuters after the vote. "We should be against human rights violations in all countries, not just the Brunei."

Badrul Chowdhury, a waiter at the hotel for 14 years, said Brunei was far removed from the lives of hotel workers: "We work. We take care of our families."

Brunei, a former British protectorate of about 400,000 run by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, last week became the first East Asian country to adopt the Islamic criminal law. It will punish offenses like sodomy and adultery with the death penalty, including by stoning.

The laws will be introduced in phases in the energy-rich country nestled between two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, with the harshest penalties going into effect in two years.

The U.S. government has been largely silent on the issue until Tuesday, when the State Department told reporters the ambassador to Brunei had privately relayed concerns to the government there about the law.

Through the resolution the council members were "adding their voice" to international outrage, said a spokeswoman.

The council stopped short of taking direct action, such as a city-sanctioned boycott.

In the last few days, organizations have canceled events at the hotel, 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.

Gay rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign on Tuesday called on the hotel's owner to stop promoting special services at the hotel for same-sex weddings, now legal in California.

"This is the height of hypocrisy, and we must ensure that profits from LGBT weddings in the U.S. stop going to a regime that could soon start executing its LGBT citizens," the group's president Chad Griffin said in a statement.

The Beverly Hills Hotel and nearby Hotel Bel-Air are part of the Dorchester Collection of luxury hotels that are owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, an arm of the Brunei government.

Christopher Cowdray, the chief executive of the London-based Dorchester Collection, said those protesting have ignored local hotels owned by countries with poor human rights records and that a boycott would ultimately hurt the local economy most.

"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," said Cowdray from Beverly Hills.

(Reporting by Dana Feldman, Eric Kelsey and Colin Sims; Editing by Eric M. Johnson, Mary Milliken, Eric Walsh and Michael Perry)

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