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A New Zealand bar manager facing jail in Burma over religious insult claims was solely responsible for using a Buddha image in a controversial drinks promotion, his colleague told a court on Tuesday.
Philip Blackwood, a general manager of the VGastro bar in Yangon, has been held in the city’s notorious Insein prison along with the bar’s owner and manager, both Burmese nationals, since posting the offending mocked-up photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones in December.
The poster triggered a minor storm of controversy in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, where surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern.
Blackwood, 32, along with Tun Thurein, the bar’s 40-year-old owner, and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, have all denied insulting religion during the trial, although the New Zealander has admitted posting the picture without intending to offend.
Bar owner Tun Thurein made a personal appeal to the court Tuesday, saying Blackwood was responsible for the Facebook posting.
“It was not my instruction. I wasn’t involved at all. We are not guilty,” he told the court, asking for the release of himself and the other Burmese national.
The trio face up to four years in jail if found guilty of breaching the Religion Act with the contentious poster, which was quickly withdrawn from the bar’s Facebook page as the furore erupted.
“The verdict will be given at 12 pm (0530 GMT) on Tuesday 17 March,” court judge Ye Lwin said on Tuesday.
Blackwood’s lawyer Mya Thway said his client had “no intention” of insulting religion and was simply promoting a cheap drinks night, reiterating a statement made by the New Zealander at an earlier hearing.
VGastro, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in an upmarket neighbourhood, was shut shortly after the poster came to light, despite a Facebook apology by management for their “ignorance” in using the Buddha’s image.
Buddhist-majority Burma, which began emerging from the grip of the military in 2011, has been rocked by several deadly outbreaks of religious violence in recent years, mainly targeting the Muslim minority.
The bloodshed has coincided with a rise in popularity of hardline monks who have advocated controversial new laws which rights groups say would severely curb the freedom of religious minorities and women.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists called on Burma to scrap or completely rework the proposed laws, which are currently being debated by MPs.
The legislation would include restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and men of other faiths, bureaucratic hurdles for those wanting to convert to another religion, and a bill aimed at legislating family size.
“If these drafts become law, they would not only give the state free rein to further discriminate against women and minorities, but could also ignite further ethnic violence,” said Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director Richard Bennett in a statement.