A New Zealand bar manager and his two Myanmar colleagues were jailed for two and a half years with hard labour by a Yangon court Tuesday for using a Buddha image to promote a cheap drinks night.
The ad posted on Facebook in December caused a stir of outrage in the former junta-ruled country, where surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern.
Philip Blackwood, who worked at the VGastro bar in Yangon, was found guilty of insulting religion along with the bar's Myanmar owner and manager, after the New Zealander posted a mocked-up photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones on Facebook — in reference to a well-known international club brand.
In emotional scenes after the verdict, family members of the two Myanmar defendants expressed shock and fury at the sentencing, with the mother of one exchanging barbs with a handful of nationalist monks waiting outside.
The case has been watched closely by international observers amid fears that the Buddhist-majority country, which has seen a surge in foreign investment since it began emerging from the grip of the military in 2011, is seeing its much-lauded reforms stalling.
Blackwood, who has a seven month old daughter, along with 40-year-old bar owner Tun Thurein and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, have been held in Yangon's notorious Insein prison since their arrest in December.
The trio, who all denied the charges, were sentenced to two years in jail for insulting religion through written word or pictures and a further six months for breaching local authority regulations. Both offences carry the punishment of hard labour.
They were also held responsible for protests that erupted outside the bar over the image.
- 'Intentional plot' -
Judge Ye Lwin said that while Blackwood, 32, had posted an apology, he had "intentionally plotted to insult religious belief" when he uploaded the photo.
He added that although the New Zealander had admitted to posting the picture without intending to offend, it was also "unreasonable only to blame the foreigner" when explaining the guilty verdicts for the Myanmar defendants.
Htut Ko Ko Lwin's mother screamed at a group of monks taking photos with smartphones outside the court after the sentencing.
The wife of bar owner Tun Thurein said she would consult her lawyer about appealing.
"They just decided everybody is guilty so I'm very shocked. This is very unfair," Myat Nandar said.
Blackwood made no comment as he was bundled into the back of a police truck through a scrum of media cameras.
Speaking to reporters after the ruling, monk Tayza Wunta, of a Myanmar nationalist monks' union, said he did not particularly relish the verdict.
"I do not want anyone of any nationality to be punished," he said.
- Communal violence -
Myanmar has been rocked by several deadly outbreaks of religious violence in recent years, mainly targeting the Muslim minority.
The bloodshed has coincided with the rising influence of hardline monks, who have advocated controversial new laws. Rights groups say these would severely curb the freedom of religious minorities and women.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday's sentences showed "freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever" in Myanmar, which is gearing up for crucial elections later this year.
"The authorities should accept the heartfelt public apology of the three men, vacate the conviction, and order them to be released immediately and unconditionally," he said in a statement.
Blackwood's parents told Fairfax Media from their New Zealand home that they were shocked by the decision and their son would consider an appeal.
"We hoped common sense would prevail and he would be found not guilty because it was not a malicious or intentional act..." said father Brian Blackwood.
VGastro, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in an upmarket neighbourhood, was shut shortly after the contentious poster came to light, even though management quickly withdrew the ad and apologised for their "ignorance" in using the Buddha's image.