YANGON - Human rights groups are criticizing the sentencing of a bar manager and two colleagues in Myanmar to 2-1/2 years in prison for using an image of the Buddha in a promotional flier.
Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, told VOA, "This is a very disappointing decision because it violates freedom of expression. These people were not inciting violence against anyone."
Amnesty International's Laura Haigh told VOA, "Unfortunately this isn't an isolated case, and it takes place in a wider context of restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Myanmar. We continue to hear reports of political activists, human rights defenders, journalists being detained, being arrested simply for exercising their rights."
The flier, which promoted discounted drinks and electronic music at VGastro Bar, appeared on Facebook in December. It depicted the Buddha in vibrant colors and wearing large headphones. The notice was later replaced by an apology.
Defense attorney Mya Thway said he asked the court in Yangon on Tuesday to free his clients, calling the punishment unjust.
“It is just a photo," he said. "They posted it [on Facebook] for their bar's promotion. They didn't intend to insult Buddhism. When they were criticized, they deleted the photo and did apologize for posting."
But the judge in the case ruled that the flier insulted Buddhism and sentenced bar general manager Philip Blackwood of New Zealand and bar owner Tun Thurein and bar manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, both of Myanmar, to two years of hard labor for insulting religion, and another six months for disobeying an order from a public servant.
The case comes as Myanmar is seeing a surge in Buddhist nationalism.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.