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New Zealander Phil Blackwood told a Rangoon court on Friday that he posted an image of the Buddha on his nightclub’s Facebook page as a promotional item for his business and that he had no intention of insulting the Buddhist religion.
“I am not guilty as I honestly posted it without knowing this problem could occur,” said Blackwood, the general manager of VGastro, a newly opened bar-restaurant in Rangoon’s Bahan Township. “I had no intention at all of insulting religion.”
The New Zealander’s comments were read out in Burmese by a judge.
Blackwood, along with fellow nightclub managers Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, has been charged under Penal Code articles 295, 295(a) and 188.
Under Burma’s Religion Act – article 295 – 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.
The Penal Code lists Article 188 as “Disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant”, and is generally used as a public indecency offence.
Meanwhile, Blackwood’s lawyer, Mya Thwe, claims he has received death threats though social media. He told reporters outside Bahan Township court on Friday that he had been threatened on Facebook for defending the trio.
Four other lawyers had previously turned down the defendants on the basis that the case was “too sensitive”.
The two other defendants, Htun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, both Burmese, are due in court on 2 January.
International rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have slammed the decision to indict the three on religious offences, and have called for all charges to be dropped.
However, several Burmese Buddhist groups are calling for severe punishments to be handed down, including 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.