Dutch tourist sentenced for disrupting religious assembly

Mr Haytema is accused of disconnecting the amplifier at about 10pm on September 23 outside his hotel near Thusarita Dhammaryone, a religious community hall in Maha Aung Myay township, Mandalay Region.

He had been charged under section 295 of the penal code for intentional insult to religious feelings or beliefs, as well as facing facing additional charges under immigration laws.

On October 3, the prosecuting legal officer from Maha Aung Myay township, U Sithu Swe Tun, made a formal application to the court recommending that Mr Haytema’s case should go to trial, given the weight of evidence against him presented in preliminary hearings. The court also heard from three witnesses, including a Mandalay hotel usher who testified that it was Mr Haytema's first trip to an Asian nation, and he was unfamiliar with the proper codes of conduct around Buddhist sites of wirship.

The following day, the township court judge announced his decision to formally indict Mr Haytema. He asked the accused to enter a plea, to which Mr Haytema responded, “I did not do it with intention. I didn’t know it was a religious building. So, I am not guilty.”

U Hla Ko, chair of the Myanmar Legal Aid Network, appeared pro bono on Mr Haytema’s behalf and formally entered a plea of not guilty, similarly arguing that the crux of his client’s case went to the question of intent.

“Number one, he had no intention [to insult religion] so he should not be convicted under section 295. Number two, he did not destroy anything so, again, he should not be convicted,” U Hla Ko said, referring to part of section 295 that subjects anyone who “destroys, damages or defiles any object of worship” to up to two years’ imprisonment.

The immigration charges faced by Mr Haytema are contingent on him being convicted of unlawful behaviour in Myanmar, and his lawyer therefore asked that they also be dismissed.

In response to the defence’s submissions, U Sithu Swe Tun said, “I’d like to put forward an argument – the saying ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse.’”

After hearing arguments from both sides, the judge announced that the final verdict would be delivered on October 6.

After the hearing, his lawyer was asked why he had decided to assist Mr Haytema, who had gone without legal counsel in prior hearings.

“Previously, I [only] helped the poor,” U Hla Ko said. “Subsequently, I decided to help anyone who needs it without considering whether they are poor or rich or what race or religion they are. That’s why I am representing him.”

Dutch newpaper Leeuwarder Courant quoted Mr Haytema’s mother as saying the family is following the case with updates from Mr Haytema’s girlfriend. “We’re hearing that our son is being treated well in prison, but he’s also anxious of what’s going to happen. We’re trying to stay positive here,” she said.