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Four monks facing charges of defaming religion and insubordination to the state monastic council appeared in Burma’s Supreme Court on Thursday.
The charges are being heard in Rangoon Division High Court, however the group, which includes British citizen Ashin Uttara, want to see the Supreme Court throw out the blasphemy charge, which comes under Article 295(a) of Burma’s penal code.
Both charges stem from an ownership dispute over the Mahasantisukha monestary in Rangoon. In June 2014, the state monastic council, known officially as the National Sangha Mahanayaka and locally as the Ma-Ha-Na or the Sangha, reclaimed the religious complex in a midnight raid. Supported by riot police, Sangha officials moved into the monastery and the resident monks – Uttara’s group – were detained.
The Sangha pressed the charge of “insubordination”, which the quintet are defending in court. The charge of defaming Buddhism, however, was brought against the monks by the Rangoon Religious Affairs Department. The monks believe that the latter charge is out of order, and previously appealed at Rangoon High Court on Monday to see it stricken. That having been rejected, the group is now trying their luck at Burma’s Supreme Court.
“We are asking the Supreme Court to repeal the charge. We want to make a point that rule of law will never prevail in Burma while government officials act above their mandate and are allowed to do whatever they feel like,” Uttara said after leaving court in Naypyidaw.
“We were charged with Article 295(a) for defaming religion. I have been devotedly working abroad as a Buddhist missionary for more than 25 years, and charging us with defaming religion is very inappropriate.
“It is very important for government officials to refrain from acting above their mandate and taking inappropriate actions. That is why we are here to appeal to the Supreme Court to drop the Article 295(a) charge that we believe we are innocent of.”
The group spent nearly two weeks in detention mid last year, before bail charges of US$20,000 were paid.
The high profile case has seen many twists and turns, including the sacking of Religious Affairs Minister Hsan Hsint for his alleged mishandling of the affair.
Last year the defendants attempted to countersue Burma’s highest religious order on grounds of arbitrary detention and restraint.
On Wednesday Supreme Court lawyer Nay La said the Rangoon Division Religious Affairs director acted above his station in pressing the blasphemy charge against the four monks.
“The Rangoon Division Religious Affairs Director was only instructed to press charges on the monks under the law relating to insubordination of the Sangha,” said the Supreme Court Lawyer
“But he acted above his mandate and pressed an additional charge, Article 295(a). And we previously sought to drop that charge at the Rangoon Division High Court but as it failed, we now have to depend on the Supreme Court to decide whether there is a jurisdiction for the charge as we believe the Supreme Court will decide in favour of the law,” he said.
The Mahasantisukha monestary remains in the hands of the Sangha despite many locals believing the rightful owner to be Penang Sayadaw.
Penang Sayadaw has links to the 2007 Saffron Revolution and was in Malaysia at the time of the Mahasantisukha seizure.