Amnesty International condemns jailing of Kiwi in Myanmar video

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.co.nz

Friend Nathan Green believes the jailing of Wellington man Phil Blackwood in Myanmar is over the top.

A Wellington man sentenced to two and a half years of hard labour in Myanmar faces a very tough life shackled to other prisoners, according to a fellow Kiwi who has witnessed the work gangs.

Philip Blackwood learned his grim fate on Tuesday in a Yangon court after he and two Burmese colleagues were found guilty of offending Buddhism by posting an online advertisement of a psychedelic Buddha wearing headphones to promote their VGastro bar.

The harsh penalty has attracted wide criticism and prompted shock among his friends, who fear how he will cope.

Kiwi bar manager Philip Blackwood has been detained in Burma.
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Kiwi bar manager Philip Blackwood has been detained in Burma.

"I have seen prisoners on the move shackled to each other with manacles on their ankles and chains that bind them from one man to the next. It reminds me of the hard labour slave trade in the 18th and 19th century. It is inhumane,"' said one of his Kiwi friends, who requested anonymity.

Earlier, humanitarian organisation Amnesty International condemned Blackwood's sentence. 

Blackwood, 32, the bar's owner Tun Thurein, 40, and its manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, who are both Myanmar nationals, were sentenced to two years hard labour for insulting religion and six months for disobeying an order from a public servant. 

Amnesty International has called for the sentence to be overturned immediately, describing it in a statement as a "chilling indication of the growing climate of religious intolerance in the country".

"It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar," Amnesty International's Rupert Abbott said.

"They should be immediately and unconditionally released."

The verdict was yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar, Abbott said.

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After the sentencing, Blackwood told reporters as he was getting into a police van that he would appeal. 

Blackwood, the general manager of VGastro Bar, has spent more than three months in Yangon's notorious Insein Prison after he was charged over the advertisement in early December.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman confirmed on Wednesday the ministry was aware of Blackwood's sentence but was unable to intervene in the judicial proceedings of another country.  

"The New Zealand Embassy in Yangon and the ministry have been in contact with Mr Blackwood and his family and are providing consular advice and assistance."

Soon after the verdict, Blackwood's parents, speaking from their home in Tawa, Wellington, said they were "absolutely gutted" by the decision.

Brian Blackwood said he could not believe the sentence his son had received.

"We hoped common sense would prevail and he would be found not guilty because it was not a malicious or intentional act, which it was supposed to be," he said.

"We were hoping he would be found not guilty or at the very least deported."

Brian Blackwood said the family had been working with various agencies in case of the worst possible outcome.

"We are looking at an appeal," he said.

"Philip is in consultation with his lawyer at the moment and a decision will be made in due course."

Philip Blackwood's fiancee Noemi Almo was with him in Myanmar and had been able to visit him a few times, Brian Blackwood said.

She was also working with his lawyers.

Blackwood's mother posted on Facebook: "We are absolutely devastated. God only knows how Philip and Noemi are feeling. But we can appeal. The fight goes on."

Friends expressed their shock at the sentence on social media.

Janine Freeman wrote: "Thinking of you, my friend. This is not right. Hang in there, bud, you will be out in no time, I'm sure." 

On arrival at court on Tuesday Blackwood told the BBC he hoped "justice will be done".

During the trial this month, Tun Thurein reportedly made a personal appeal to the court, saying Blackwood was responsible for the Facebook posting.

He asked for the release of himself and Htut Ko Lo Lwin.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said embassy staff had been in contact with Blackwood to provide consular advice and assistance.

About half a dozen monks and hardline Buddhists gathered outside the Yangon court to hear the verdict.  

"The verdict is fair,"said Paw Shwe, a member of a Buddhist organisation.

"This punishment will deter others from insulting Buddhism or other religion."

About 90 percent of Myanmar's people are Buddhist. Perceived insults to the religion are taken seriously, especially in the context of the religious-based violence in the past few years pitting Buddhists against Muslims. 

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the three men acted in a culturally insensitive way but they should not be sent to prison.  

"What this shows is freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma (Myanmar) just as the country heads into a pivotal election year," Robertson said in a statement.

- with AP

 - Dominion Post

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