NZ National Appears in Court as Defense Lawyer Details Death Threats

By Lawi Weng & Steve Tickner 26 December 2014

RANGOON — The defense lawyer for a New Zealand national charged with insulting religion told reporters at a court appearance in Rangoon on Friday that he had received death threats for representing the accused.

“They threatened to chop up and burn my body because I am working on this case,” said Mya Thwe, the lawyer for Philip Blackwood, the general manager of V Gastro Bar who, along with owner Tun Thurein and bar manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, was arrested on Dec. 10.

The trio were detained after an image posted on the V Gastro Bar’s Facebook page, of the Buddha wearing headphones against a psychedelic backdrop, drew outrage online.

The threats against Mya Thwe were discovered on Facebook by his children, who then showed the lawyer.

“I do not have Facebook. But my children showed me a threatening message,” Mya Thwe said. “I do not know who they are. They could kill me if they wanted.”

Mya Thwe, who is 73 years old, elected to represent the accused despite security concerns.

Some Buddhist monks and members of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—known locally as Ma Ba Tha—were present for Friday’s court hearing.

The case has drawn both international and domestic attention, including from hardline Buddhists. One Ma Ba Tha member told The Irrawaddy on Dec. 18 that the group would push for their own legal action if they were unhappy with the court’s decision.

Mya Thwe said that representatives from the New Zealand embassy had met him last week, and that embassy staff would come to the court on Jan. 3 to discuss the case with the judge.

Although he did not provide details of his meeting with the New Zealand officials, Mya Thwe said, “I told them (embassy staff) i would do my best.”

Philip Blackwood told the court on Friday that he did not have any intention to insult Buddhist religion by posting the offending image on Facebook.

Blackwood had already submitted two letters apologizing for his actions, according to his defense team, which the court had rejected. He is being held in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, where he has been detained since his arrest after being denied bail.

The court only heard from the New Zealand national on Friday, while the two Burmese men will address the court on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4, according to Mya Thwe.

All three men face charges for violation of articles 295, 295(a) and 188 of Burma’s Penal Code. The first two charges pertain to destruction, damage or defilement of sacred places or objects with intent or knowledge that the action could cause insult.

Article 188, under a chapter of the Penal Code covering contempt of authority, pertains to disobeying an order issued by a public servant. The defense attorney said the charge related to keeping the V Gastro Bar open after authorized hours.