YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A Myanmar court on Tuesday sentenced a New Zealand bar manager and his business associates to 2 1/2 years in prison for insulting Buddhism in an online advertisement that showed a psychedelic depiction of Buddha wearing headphones.
Philip Blackwood, 32, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were given two years of hard labor for insulting religion and six months for disobeying an order from a public servant. After the sentencing, Blackwood told reporters as he was getting into a police van that he would appeal.
About 90 percent of Myanmar's people are Buddhist. Perceived insults to the religion are taken seriously, especially in the context of the religious-based violence in the past few years pitting Buddhists against Muslims.
The sentences drew strong rebukes from human rights groups.
"It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar. They should be immediately and unconditionally released," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's research director for South East Asia and the Pacific, in a press release.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the three men acted in a culturally insensitive way but should not be sent to prison. "What this shows is freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma (Myanmar) just as the country heads into a pivotal election year," he said in an emailed statement.
The trial of V Gastro manager Blackwood, bar owner Tun Thurein and employee Htut Ko Ko Lwin came as Myanmar grapples with a surge of religious nationalism, including violence against Muslims.
About half a dozen monks and hard-line Buddhists gathered outside the Yangon court to hear the verdict.
"The verdict is fair. This punishment will deter others from insulting Buddhism or other religions," said Paw Shwe, a member of a Buddhist organization.
The three were arrested in December after the image was used to promote the tapas bar and lounge, and have been detained in Myanmar's notorious Insein prison. The online ad was removed and an apology was posted.
Blackwood's father Brian Blackwood at his home in Wellington told Fairfax Media that he was devastated and could not believe the sentence his son had received.
"We hoped common sense would prevail and he would be found not guilty because it was not a malicious or intentional act, which it was supposed to be," he said. "We were hoping he would be found not guilty or at the very least deported."
Amnesty International said it was deeply worried about shrinking religious freedom and the growing influence of hard-line Buddhist nationalists. "Authorities should do all they can to reverse this disturbing trend - not seek to inflame the situation further by pursuing cases like this," Abbott said.
Associated Press writer Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.