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Star power tested with boycott of Beverly Hills Hotel

Celebs protesting Brunei sultan’s sharia law edict

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In a community where even noses change on a regular basis, the Beverly Hills Hotel has made a name for itself as an enduring Hollywood institution.

But the reputation and the financial future of the century-old getaway is on the line, as stars are boycotting the hotel and its corporate connection to the sultan of Brunei, whose tiny Southeast Asian nation recently adopted what critics say is an extreme and harsh form of Islamic Shariah law.

Comedians Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno are just two of the famous people who are publicly taking issue with the fact that the hotel is owned by an investment group controlled by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, who last week instituted the first of three phases of Shariah law.

Christopher Cowdray, chief executive of the Dorchester Collection, which owns the hotel, has said the company does not tolerate discrimination and operates independently of its owner's politics.

That hasn't stopped the growing boycott against the chain. On Wednesday, actor Patrick Stewart tweeted he was "Absolutely delighted to learn that @20thcenturyfox has moved #XMen out of a Dorchester Group hotel for our London premiere. #Brunei"

Brunei is the first country in its region to impose the faith-based code of law, with strict rules and penalties such as amputation for theft and the stoning deaths of adulterers and homosexuals. Critics also say the code discriminates against women.

Only a handful of countries, most of them in the Middle East, follow strict Shariah law.

According to reports, Brunei would introduce the laws through three phrases, ramping up the severity of punishments. The first phase, started May 1, includes fines or jail time for offenses such as pregnancy outside of marriage and promoting religion other than Islam.

Brunei is a small sovereign state on the northern side of the island of Borneo, with a population of just over 400,000.

The sultan said he saw it as his "obligation" to re-establish the Shariah system practiced in the country centuries ago.

"We have never viewed others in a negative light because what they do is within their rights and up to their individual choices," he told a local newspaper. "We also do not expect them to accept and agree with us, but it is sufficient if they respect us as we duly respect them."

But the move is proving a public relations and business nightmare for the country.

Stephanie Hallett, spokeswoman for the Feminist Majority Foundation, said Wednesday that the group hasn't actively promoted the boycott but pulled out of hosting an event at the hotel this week.

"For us, it's really been [about] the sultan," she said of the foundation's focus. "The thing that we could do on the ground — we're in the U.S., not in Brunei — was pull our event from the hotel. Our next steps are continuing the petition campaign, continue to get the word out, and in some way put pressure on the government here at home to take action whether that be sanctions or publicly denouncing Shariah law. Our ending is to see these laws rescinded."

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said this week that the administration was watching how the law would be implemented, "but the specific concerns are that it may criminalize several freedoms of religion, including apostasy, and also that freedom of expression and freedom of religion, which obviously are fundamental human rights, could be increasingly threatened under this."

The United Nations Human Rights Council conducted a periodic review of Brunei this week. Nearly 80 countries, including the United States, participated.

In a statement, U.S. representatives in the review said they were "strongly concerned" about the country's implementation of Shariah law because it "would undermine several of Brunei's international human rights commitments, including the freedoms of religion and of expression and prohibitions on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

The review group listed a number of recommendations for Brunei, including a moratorium on the death penalty. The report is scheduled to be adopted this week.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, the stars are aligning in an unusual celebrity protest of one of the local landmarks.

Mr. Leno on Tuesday joined his wife, Mavis, at the Feminist Majority Foundation protest.

"What year is this? 1814? Come on, people, it's 2014," Mr. Leno told reporters and protesters gathered across from the hotel.

Ms. DeGeneres, who is openly gay, posted earlier on her Twitter site that she would not be visiting the hotel "until this is resolved." She included a link to an article detailing the severity of punishment under Shariah law.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, tweeted that neither his family nor Virgin employees would be staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel or any of the other nine luxury hotels under the Dorcester Collection.

Actress Mia Farrow on her Twitter site suggested "Skip the Bel-Air & Beverly Hills Hotels of Dorchester Collection owned by the Sultan of #Brunei enforcer of draconian #Sharia law."

The Motion Picture & Television Fund, which hosts an annual pre-Oscar party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, also announced plans to find a new site for the 2015 event.

Even the community of Beverly Hills has rallied against the hotel. Earlier this week, the City Council approved a resolution condemning the laws, which "impose harsh penalties including death by stoning for homosexuality and other behaviors."

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