RANGOON — The three defendants charged with religious defamation for posting an online image of the Buddha wearing headphones appeared in court on Wednesday for the seventh time since being detained in December.
The court heard arguments on a charge relating to a licensing breach, brought after the three men—including a New Zealand national—were initially arraigned on two charges of causing religious offense in connection with the image, which was part of a promotional Facebook posting by V-Gastro Bar, where the trio worked as senior management.
The image went viral online and caused a backlash from hardline Buddhists in Burma, who gathered in protest outside V-Gastro Bar in Rangoon’s Bahan Township on Dec. 10.
Aye Than Than Htoo, mother of the youngest of the three defendants Htut Ko Ko Lwin, spoke to The Irrawaddy outside the Bahan Courthouse on Wednesday about conditions she witnessed while visiting her son at Rangoon’s Insein Prison.
Aye Than Than Htoo, who traveled from her home in Japan to support her 26-year-old son, said she was deeply concerned about his health while in detention, saying he recently fell ill with a fever and had lost considerable weight.
“The conditions are very dirty,” she said. “I don’t know if he has seen a doctor or not, or whether he needs a doctor—I’m not sure, but I will be asking him.”
Calling her son’s trial “difficult to understand,” Aye Than Than Htoo maintained that the defendants were innocent.
“This is a picture,” she said. “A picture is not criminal, they didn’t commit a criminal act.”
Aye Than Than Htoo said she has visited her son weekly since his detention, though prison authorities only allow them 10-15 minutes to talk in an environment that she described as crowded and noisy.
“At any one time, about 30 people meet and it is very noisy. Sometimes I cannot catch my son’s voice because everybody sits very close together to talk.”
She described Htut Ko Ko Lwin as a devout Buddhist, saying that since childhood he was always mindful to avoid killing even small animals, and had returned to Burma in April 2014 with his Japanese father to perform his second stint as a monk, as is Burmese tradition.
He was just beginning to settle into his new job as bar manager at V-Gastro, having put in only one week’s work before being arrested.
At Wednesday’s hearing the judge questioned two of the defendants, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, and also Thein Win, the head of the Bahan Township police station, regarding Section 188 of the Penal Code, which pertains to failure to follow a government official’s directive.
The trio’s next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 17, when the New Zealand national Philip Blackwood’s lawyer Mya Thwe said he expects all three defendants to be called again to give statements to the court.