YANGON: Myanmar on Tuesday jailed a writer for two years with hard labour for “insulting religion”, his lawyer said, with rights groups condemning the verdict as the country’s latest strike on freedom of expression.
Htin Lin Oo, a columnist and former information officer for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was arrested in December on accusations of insulting religion during a speech at a literacy event in Sagaing region in central Myanmar.
Lawyer Thein Than Oo told AFP the sentence passed at Chaung Oo township court Tuesday was punishing his client for “criticizing those monks who use the excuse of nation, race and religion to incite hate speech”.
A video clip of the writer’s speech had stirred outrage among social media users in Myanmar where surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern.
“This case harms freedom of expression,” the lawyer said, adding that he would appeal against the verdict.
The two-year-jail term for Htin Lin Oo came after he was found guilty on the charge of “insulting religion”, a verdict also passed Tuesday when he was acquitted of a second charge of “wounding religious feelings”.
Amnesty International called for the decision to be “overturned immediately”.
“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar… Htin Lin Oo did nothing but give a speech promoting religious tolerance,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement.
In March Myanmar jailed a New Zealand bar manager and his two local colleagues for two and a half years with hard labor for using a Buddha image to promote a cheap drinks night.
Htin Lin Oo, who is believed to be in his late 50s, often writes for the NLD’s journal D-Wave.
Myanmar has been rocked by several deadly outbreaks of religious violence in recent years, mainly targeting the Muslim minority.
The bloodshed has coincided with the rising influence of hardline monks, who have advocated controversial new laws. Rights groups say these would severely curb the freedom of religious minorities and women.