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Islamic laws in Brunei spark protests at L.A.-area luxury hotels

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Harsh penalties imposed by Brunei against homosexuality, adultery spark protests
Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air are owned by an arm of the Brunei government

The tiny, oil-rich country of Brunei has been a quiet steward of the Beverly Hills Hotel and Hotel Bel-Air, undertaking multimillion-dollar renovations of the landmarks.

But in recent days both hotels have come under siege from Hollywood feminists and gay rights advocates because of new laws in the Southeast Asian sultanate.

Brunei last week imposed new criminal codes, based on Islamic law, with harsh penalties for homosexuality and adultery, including death by stoning.

Organizers have abruptly canceled several events planned for the Beverly Hills Hotel, and big names such as Ellen DeGeneres, Richard Branson and Sharon Osbourne have vowed on social media to stay away and urged others to do the same.

On Monday, Jay Leno joined the chorus of condemnation at a demonstration along Sunset Boulevard across from the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"This is 2014, not 1814," Leno, the former "Tonight Show" host, told dozens of protesters.

The protests have put Beverly Hills civic and business leaders in a delicate position, trying to balance opposition to the laws with support for a local cultural monument and economic engine.

On Tuesday, the Beverly Hills City Council is slated to consider a resolution condemning the Brunei laws.

The resolution "is not in any way a statement against the Beverly Hills Hotel … which is a pillar of our community," said Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse. "It's about the ownership and its lack of concern for justice and human rights."

Christopher Cowdray, the hotel group's chief executive, said in an interview that the boycotts and protests were misguided and potentially harmful to the city of Beverly Hills.

"They won't stop the implementation of the new laws," he said, but rather would "only hurt the [hotel's] employees." He added there were no plans to sell the hotels.

The Beverly Hills Hotel employs about 600 people, and the Hotel Bel-Air, roughly 400. Cowdray added that the Beverly Hills Hotel pays about $7 million in bed taxes and $4 million in city taxes annually.

Hotel representatives Monday greeted the dozens of protesters cordially and offered them cookies and bottles of water.

Leno said Angelenos had lately been absorbed in the local controversy over Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, who was banned for life by the NBA after his remarks about black people came to light.

Brunei's adherence to sharia, or Islami, law, he said, is far more serious. "I mean, we get so upset when a team owner says something inappropriate," he said. "Here are people being killed, stoned to death.... It's just a matter of priorities, that's what it is."

In protest, the Feminist Majority Foundation pulled from the Beverly Hills Hotel its annual Global Women's Rights Awards, co-chaired by Leno and his wife, Mavis. The event, scheduled for Monday, was instead held at the Hammer Museum in Westwood.

Other organizations quickly jumped aboard the bandwagon. The Hollywood Reporter said it would not hold its annual Women in Entertainment breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The Motion Picture & Television Fund, which runs the star-studded Night Before the Oscars, said it would not hold its charity event at the hotel in 2015. In a statement, representatives said they met with hotel executives and "expressed very clearly that we cannot condone or tolerate these harsh and repressive laws."

Teen Line — a confidential teen-to-teen help line — also recently decided to move its annual fundraising luncheon from the hotel to the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City.

A British protectorate that gained its independence in 1984, Brunei is ranked as the fifth-richest nation in the world by Forbes magazine and has been likened to an "Asian Qatar," in reference to the small, oil-rich Persian Gulf state.

Flush with petrodollars, Brunei's sultan, who also serves as the country's prime minister, defense minister and finance minister, has followed a policy of industrialization coupled with aggressive investment in projects worldwide. The Dorchester Collection, the luxury hotel group owned by an arm of the Brunei government, also has hotels in Europe.

The sultan bought the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1987, and it became part of the Dorchester Collection in 1996. The sultan's purchase initially led to concern that he might turn the lush getaway into a gaudy spectacle, a la Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Instead, the pink-stucco hotel has maintained the charm that has long attracted movie icons, rock stars and well-shod glitterati.

Under the first phase of the new legal code introduced last week, fines and jail terms can be imposed for failing to attend Friday prayers, indecent behavior and pregnancies outside of marriage. A second phase later this year prescribes the severing of limbs and flogging for property crimes.

The third phase, set to go into effect in 2015, would allow for death by stoning for crimes including adultery and gay sex.

It remains to be seen how laws in a faraway land will affect travelers seeking a luxury stay at a historic hotel such as the century-old Beverly Hills, with its famed bungalows, pool and Polo Lounge.

"That's a tough one," said Christopher O'Neill, a visitor from Vancouver, Canada, waiting for his car in the portico. "They're horrible," he said of the new sharia laws. "But my stay here was fabulous."

martha.groves@latimes.com

nabih.bulos@latimes.com

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

@nabihbulos

@MattStevensLAT

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