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Phil Blackwood, a bar-restaurant manager who has been incarcerated in Rangoon’s Insein Prison for nearly ten months, is malnourished and suffering from mental stress, according to his parents in Wellington, New Zealand.
Speaking to DVB this week, Brian and Angela Blackwood said, “Philip had lost over 20 kilogrammes when we saw him in late May/early June, and this weight loss has continued. He has now lost 30 to 35 kg.
“It was obvious then that his mental state was an issue even though he tried to hide it from us. Philip is trying to put on a brave face regarding his health so as not to worry his loved ones. This does not, however, disguise the fact that he is malnourished and suffering a great deal of mental stress. He is taking anti-depressants to get by.”
Blackwood was arrested in December 2014 and subsequently imprisoned for two and a half years for insulting religion, after he posted an image of the Buddha wearing headphones as part of a promotion for the VGastro nightclub in Rangoon.
The 33-year-old, who holds both New Zealand and British citizenship, has a wife and 14-month-old daughter who are permitted to visit him once a fortnight in Insein, the most notorious prison in Burma, synonymous with the incarceration of political prisoners under decades of brutal military rule.
Many prisoners died of torture during the reign of the military junta, while others rotted away in dire and unsanitary conditions where disease is rife and medical treatment seldom administered.
Blackwood’s parents say that he is trying to maintain an exercise regime, “even though he is fed only rice and broth” and perhaps some protein twice a week. They said that his wife tries to bring him ready-to-eat canned meats and some fruit when she visits.
“Of course, he has nowhere to store food and it deteriorates very quickly,” they said. “We have posted food parcels with items from New Zealand. The problem is the heat and that Philip has no means to cook them.
“Philip is locked up alone in a 6ft x 8ft cell with a boarded-up window and a door. It has a long drop toilet in the corner open to the sewers. He sleeps on a pallet. No bedding is supplied or allowed. We were, however, allowed to get him two blankets after 2-3 months so he could lay on one and fold up the other for a pillow. The light in the cell is on day and night. There is no fan in his cell, and the Myanmar weather often gets unbearable. He is woken at 5am and let out into the communal yard at six. He is locked up again from 12 till 2pm, and then finally locked up for the night at 6pm.”
Blackwood was charged under Burmese penal code articles 295(a) and 188, along with Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, the two other managers from the VGastro Bar, which has subsequently been closed down following protests by hardline Buddhist monks who called for harsh sentences to be imposed on the three.
Article 295(a) reads as: “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Article 188 is a public harm edict, but which notes that “It is not necessary that the offender should intend to produce harm … It is sufficient that he knows of the order.”
In December, Blackwood’s lawyer, Mya Thwe, claimed he had received death threats for defending the trio.
Apart from the firebrand monks who currently appear to wield great political influence in Burma, few observers doubt that the posting of the Buddha image on the VGastro’s Facebook page was anything other than a careless mistake.
At the time of sentencing in March, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rupert Abbott referred to the verdict as “ludicrous”. Phil Robertson, the Asia division deputy-director of Human Rights Watch, said, “That these three men acted in a culturally insensitive way by posting the Buddha with headphones image on Facebook is obvious, but that is nothing they should have been hauled into court for, much less sent to prison.”
Burmese senior monks have also spoken out on behalf of the three men, saying that the sentencing does not reflect the spirit of Buddhist tolerance.
In an email to DVB on Tuesday, a spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that, “The Ministry continues to provide consular assistance to Mr Blackwood and his family. This includes embassy staff making regular prison visits to check on Mr Blackwood’s well-being. We also remain in regular contact with his parents in New Zealand.”
It emphasised, however, that it could not cannot comment on or intervene in the judicial proceedings of another country.
In the United Kingdom, at least one MP, Andrew McDonald from Middlesborough, has taken a stand on the case on the basis of Phil Blackwood’s British citizenship (he was born in England and moved to New Zealand when he was four).
The Labour Party parliamentarian said that Blackwood was “unjustly imprisoned for an honest mistake, for which he has already issued a heartfelt apology.”
On 5 October, Burma Campaign UK released a statement accusing Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire of “failing in one of his most fundamental duties – the support and protection of British citizens overseas.”
“When Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire visited Burma a few weeks ago, and met with Burmese government officials, he didn’t even call for the release of Philip Blackwood or the other two political prisoners in this case,” the statement said.
“The Foreign Office is trying to treat this as a lower level consular case, rather than a political case where ministers must intervene. They are also trying to hide behind Philip’s dual nationality, saying consular arrangements have to be made with New Zealand. This is a red herring, as this should not be treated as simply a consular case. There is no justice or rule of law in Burma.”
Burma Campaign UK has launched an online petition calling for the release of Phil Blackwood and his Burmese colleagues Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin.
Little, if anything, is known of the condition of the two Burmese detainees, who by all accounts had nothing to do with the posting online of the offending advertisement, but who were nonetheless sentenced to 30-month prison terms each.
A family friend of Blackwood said on Tuesday that he believes Tun Thurein is currently in the prison hospital.
Read more on this case HERE