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Jailed New Zealander Phil Blackwood says he is placing his faith and trust in the Burmese judicial system and hopes that it will be evident that the offence he caused by using a picture of Buddha as part of a nightclub promotion was purely a mistake and not a deliberate smear on the religion.
“I have faith in the judge and judicial system, and I trust that the judge has the strength and integrity to only focus on the facts of the case and to ignore outside influences,” he said in a statement relayed to DVB by a family member.
Alongside his two Burmese business partners at the VGastro Bar in Rangoon’s Bahan Township, Blackwood has been charged under Burma’s Religion Act, article 295, which states that anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be sentenced to a maximum of two years in jail, with another two years for insulting religion through the written word.
Blackwood, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were present in Bahan Township Court on Tuesday for their sixth court hearing following the trio’s arrest in December. According to Blackwood’s lawyer, the next session will be held on 3 March when final arguments will be heard. Thereafter, the judge must rule on whether to proceed with a trial, a decision expected soon after.
Several domestic and international observers has voiced concerns at the severity of the charges leveled at the three nightclub managers.
Amnesty International has called for all charges to be dropped and the three to be unconditionally released.
“The charges should be dropped and all three men should be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, speaking directly to DVB in December. “While international human rights law and standards permit certain restrictions to the right to freedom of expression, these restrictions are clearly defined and limited in scope. There is no way that the charges and prosecution in this case can meet the narrow human rights criteria for restricting the right to freedom of expression, and therefore Myanmar is clearly violating this right.”
The sentiment was backed by Phil Robertson, the deputy-director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, who slammed the verdict and called into question the “lynch mob mentality” that provoked the charges.
The arrest of Blackwood, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin was sparked when a digital image of Buddha wearing headphones was posted on the VGastro Bar’s Facebook page on 10 December as part of a “Buddha Bar” event at their bar-restaurant. Buddha Bar is an international franchise of nightclubs with locations in London, Paris, Mexico, throughout Europe, the Middle East, India and the Philippines. The franchise is known for sporting Buddhist iconography at its venues and uses a picture of the Buddha sat between loudspeakers as its logo.
The VGastro Bar promotional image was quickly shared on social media in Rangoon with many Buddhists voicing distaste. However, it was the arrival at the nightclub of a crowd, led by extremist Buddhist monks, chanting calls for remonstrations against the bar managers, that provoked police to take action.
The offending image was quickly taken down from the VGastro Bar Facebook page when the staff realised the negative impact it had caused. A profuse apology was offered by the management and the event that was being promoted was cancelled. The nightclub has never reopened.
Although many hardline Buddhists have called for severe punishments to be meted out to the three defendants, other monks have now stood up to call for forgiveness in view of the circumstances, saying that the offending material was clearly not meant to be insulting and the fact that the bar managers issued a full apology.
Ashin Sopaka, a highly revered monk and writer based in Monywa, called for the trio to be released in the spirit of Buddhist tolerance and forgiveness.
“I was thinking what would The Buddha say in this issue, and he would say: ‘It’s no problem, I forgive you, but please do not make such a mistake again’,” he wrote.