Four lawyers have refused to represent Phil Blackwood, a New Zealand citizen detained in Insein Prison on charges of insulting religion, because they believe the case is “too sensitive”.
A friend of Blackwood’s family, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they had hired a well-known attorney in Rangoon who is a prominent member of the National League for Democracy, after the New Zealander had been unable to attain the services of a legal representative during his arraignment at Bahan police station on Thursday. But the attorney backed out the following day, saying the case was too sensitive.
“The lawyer we spoke to on Thursday night agreed to take the case, but then called us on Friday morning requesting an emergency meeting. He told the family he could not take the case because the police told him that this is a very sensitive topic that he should not be involved in,” she said.
Speaking to DVB on Saturday, the lawyer in question declined to comment about the case and requested his name be withheld.
The family friend said that three other lawyers had also declined to represent Blackwood while he being held at the police station, each saying that the case was “too controversial as it relates to religion”.
She said that Blackwood’s wife was due to meet with two other attorneys on Saturday.
The New Zealand embassy has so far been unavailable for comment, however DVB has learnt that an official from the embassy is involved in the attempts to hire a lawyer to defend him.
New Zealand media on Saturday cited a an embassy official saying they had been told it may take up to two weeks for a permit to visit Blackwood in jail.
Thirty-two-year old Blackwood, recently appointed general manager of the newly opened VGastro bar-restaurant at the centre of the storm, has not been allowed any visitors and has been placed in separate cells in Insein Prison from the two other defendants, VGastro owner Tun Thurein and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin. Both have acquired legal representation and, as they are Burmese citizens, have been allowed visitors, DVB was told.
Blackwood’s friend said that his wife had asked prison authorities to deliver a family photograph to him, but even that request was refused.
“I am quite worried of how Phil might be feeling considering he hasn’t seen anyone, but I hope he is being optimistic,” the family friend told DVB on Saturday. “He is very deeply sorry that they have offended the Buddhists with their promotional ad as that was clearly not their intention, and he’s hoping their apologies will be accepted. He removed it [from Facebook] even before it went viral and cancelled the event as soon as he found out that it had a negative impact.
“I hope people see that it was just an honest mistake, and they can forgive him for that.”
Blackwood, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were arrested after a protest sprung up outside their nightclub on Wednesday evening in reaction to the promotional advert that had been posted on the VGastro Facebook page, which depicted an image of the Buddha wearing headphones.
The posting was circulated widely in Rangoon and drew howls of protest from Buddhists, claiming it was insulting and in bad taste. The post was quickly deleted and an apology issued, but a crowd gathered outside the bar, calling for action. Among the crowd were local monks from the Association of Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known as the ma-ba-tha, a fundamentalist Buddhist organisation closely associated with extremist monk Wirathu’s 969 movement.
Bahan Township police intervened and arrested the three bar owners under articles 295 and 295(a) of the Penal Code: for “insulting religion” and “hurting religious feelings”. Bahan police deputy-superintendent Sgt-Maj Thein Win told reporters late on Wednesday that police may also seek a closure of the nightclub.