Jailed bar trio pin amnesty hopes on next government

The parents of Phillip Blackwood, one of three bar workers sentenced to jail for a Facebook post, have said they hoped Myanmar’s new government would make the release of prisoners of conscience a priority.

In March, New Zealander Mr Blackwood and his two Myanmar colleagues, bar owner U Tun Thurein and co-manager Ko Htut Ko Ko Lwin, were sentenced to two and a half years in jail with hard labour. They were sentenced under sections 295(a) and 188 of the country’s penal code. The former is related to insulting religion while the latter refers to disobeying a civil servant.

A third charge, under section 295 – defiling a place of worship – was dismissed.

The trio were arrested in December 2014 after an image of the Buddha wearing headphones was used to promote a drinks night at the now-closed V Gastro Bar in Yangon.

The image was quickly shared on social media and although the image was deleted and an apology was issued through the bar’s Facebook page, the trio were arrested.

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Brian Blackwood, Mr Blackwood’s father, told Frontier that he has written to President U Thein Sein requesting the trio’s release, and his son’s repatriation.

“I hope he has not lost his spark and zest for life, and believe he will see this as a life experience and not change his outlook on life,” he said.

Shortly after emerging victorious from the country’s general election last month, the National League for Democracy said that freeing political prisoners will be at the top of its list of priorities when it takes office in April next year.

Ms Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International, said the trio are regarded as prisoners of conscience and called on President U Thein Sein to release all of the country’s prisoners of conscience in order to leave a positive legacy.

As of the end of October, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said there are 112 political prisoners in Myanmar and 486 activists currently awaiting trial for political actions.

Ms Haigh said that Myanmar’s next president would have the power to release all of the prisoners of conscience.

“Equally important is ensuring that those peacefully expressing their rights stay out of jail. To do this, the next government must review and amend all laws which are used to arrest, prosecute and imprison human rights defenders and other peaceful activist. Human rights defenders and civil society activists have an important role to play in shaping Myanmar’s future, but they can’t do this if they are locked up or face constant risk of arrest for their work,” she said.

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