Phil Blackwood among prisoners released in latest amnesty

YANGON — New Zealand citizen Phil Blackwood is among the 102 political prisoners freed in the latest presidential amnesty on Friday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is pleased to confirm Mr Blackwood is on the Myanmar Presidential Amnesty list which will allow him to be released from detention, an MFAT spokesperson told Frontier on Friday morning. “This is understandably of significant relief to his family.”

Blackwood, 33, was jailed in March 2015 under religious offence provisions of the Myanmar Penal Code, along with codefendants Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, both Myanmar citizens.

The trio, respectively the general manager, owner and manager of the V Gastro Bar in Yangon’s Bahan Township, were handed a 30 month sentence for a promotional flyer advertising the bar which featured an image of the Buddha wearing headphones amidst a psychedelia-inspired backdrop.

Angry mobs of Buddhist monks were a constant presence at the Bahan Township court during the so-called ‘Buddha Bar’ trial. The case was seen as a potent symbol of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha’s ascendancy last year, along with the imprisonment of former National League for Democracy member U Htin Lin Oo.

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Both Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were also released on Friday. AAPP said that 52 of those preleased on Friday had been jailed for political reasons.

Sources have told Frontier that Blackwood will be released from prison at 2pm and will immediately leave the country via Yangon International Airport.

President U Thein Sein has granted a number of sweeping presidential amnesties since coming to office in 2011. The most recent, issued in July last year, pardoned nearly 7,000 prisoners across Myanmar, including several dozen Chinese nationals convicted of illegal logging in Kachin State and sentenced the previous week in Myitkyina. 

The AAPP told Frontier on Friday that none of the 50 student protestors currently detained in Thayawaddy Prison, Bago Region, were released on Friday.

Prior to Friday’s amnesty, the AAPP reported that 131 political prisoners remained behind bars in Myanmar to January 19.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his visit to Myanmar on January 19 by urging the release of all remaining political prisoners in Burma before the next government, led by the National League of Democracy, takes office at the end of March. 

The following day, officials arrested former monk U Gambira, one of the most prominent leaders of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, over alleged immigration offences in Mandalay. His Australian wife, Marie Siochana, slammed the charges as “politically motivated”. 

Friday is also the day a verdict will be handed down in the case of Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, who is standing trial at Hlaing Township Court while remanded in custody, despite serious concerns over his health. The Kachin peace activist is facing a maximum three year sentence for a Facebook post allegedly defaming military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Updated 6:30pm, Jan. 22 to include latest updates from AAPP.

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