Punishment exceeds crime in Myanmar

Punishment exceeds crime- David ShearerDavid Shearer

A 32-year-old New Zealander, Philip Blackwood, and two colleagues were sentenced to prison for two years of hard labour for insulting religion and six months for disobeying an order from a public servant in Myanmar on March 17, 2015.

Their crime was distributing an online flier for a function, featuring a picture of Buddha wearing headphones.

It was a naïve and insensitive thing to do, but there is no evidence of malicious intent or that Blackwood set out to seriously offend; to the contrary, when complaints were made about the flier, he immediately cancelled the event and apologised.

As such, the punishment seems out of proportion to the crime.

Outside influence

However, there have been a number of reports that the harshness of the sentence is likely to have been influenced by a group of harder-line Buddhist groups with increasing influence inside Myanmar.

Now Blackwood, a young New Zealander, a sportsman, husband, and father to 16-month-old daughter Sasha, is stuck in a notorious Myanmar jail.

We know from other cases like that of Peter Greste, an Al Jazeera journalist jailed in Egypt last year, that political and popular pressure can make a difference to sentencing, particularly on appeal.

Blackwood has said that he intends to appeal.

It has been reported that this will take about a month.

Human Rights

The New Zealand government needs to be very busy, then, spending the month talking with Myanmar authorities about the harshness of the sentence.

Although we need to respect the independence of the Myanmar judiciary, we also need to speak about freedom of expression and human rights.

Over the last four years, the government in Myanmar has shown itself capable of change, moving towards greater democracy after years of military rule.

It increasingly sees itself as a country that is modernising – and as a result has attracted an influx of Western interaction and investment.

Blackwood’s story and sentence has the potential to cast a shadow over that progress.

I have written to the Myanmar Ambassador to New Zealand, based in Canberra, to lobby for a fairer deal for Blackwood.

I am also in regular contact with his very worried parents in Wellington.

For them, as you can imagine, the imprisonment of their son is a nightmare.

The more public pressure we can bring to bear on this situation, the greater the chance of Blackwood’s sentence may be reduced.

David Shearer is Member of Parliament elected from Mt Albert and Labour Party’s Spokesman for Foreign Affairs and Consumer Affairs.

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