BANGKOK (AP), Danny Fenster, an American journalist, spent six months in Myanmar’s military-ruled Myanmar jail. He was sentenced to 11 years hard labor last week and released Monday. Fenster is now on his way home.
Fenster was given to Bill Richardson, a former U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the release and they landed in Doha (Qatar).
“I’m feeling all good physically,” a bearded Fenster said in baggy drawstring trousers and a knit cap on the tarmac. The comments were carried by Al Jazeera. It’s the same as any other form of imprisonment. It’s just a little bit crazy. It just drags on for longer and you worry that it will never end. That was my biggest concern. I just wanted to be able to get through it.
Fenster confessed to his lawyer while still in prison that he believed that he had COVID-19. Prison authorities have denied this.
Frontier Myanmar’s managing editors were convicted on Friday of spreading false and inflammatory information, violating visa regulations, and contacting illegal groups. He learned that he was also facing additional charges for treason and terrorism statutes days before his conviction. This put him at greater risk of spending the rest of his life in prison.
He is among more than 100 journalists and media professionals who were detained after the military overthrew the elected government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. This was his harshest sentence.
Richardson, who was a former governor in New Mexico and a past ambassador to United Nations, stated that “this is the day you hope will arrive when you do this job.” He also sent a statement via email from his office. “We are so happy that Danny will finally be in touch with his loved one, who has been fighting for him against incredible odds.
Fenster was taken into custody on May 24, when he attempted to fly to Detroit to visit his family.
His family released a statement saying that they were overjoyed to see Danny freed and on their way home. They cannot wait for him to be in their arms. We are extremely grateful to everyone who helped secure Danny’s release, particularly Ambassador Richardson and all our friends and members of the public who supported us through these difficult months.
Although the exact allegations against Fenster are not known, it is clear that the prosecution relied heavily on his employment at another online news site. This was after the military seized power and ordered him to close down the site. Fenster worked for the site in the past, but he left it last year.
Fenster is a Detroit native and holds a master’s in creative writing from Wayne State University. He had previously worked in Louisiana for a newspaper before moving to Southeast Asia according to Deadline Detroit. He was also an occasional contributor to the news site Deadline Detroit.
Bryan Fenster, Bryan’s brother, said that he was passionate about writing about people who struggle for justice and had a passion for the story of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Hundreds of thousands fled Myanmar in 2017 during an insurgency counterinsurgency campaign.
Frontier Myanmar Editor in Chief Thomas Kean stated Fenster was “one the many journalists in Myanmar unjustly arrested for simply doing their job since February coup.”
According to the U.N. at least 126 journalists and media officials or publishers were taken into military custody by the military following the takeover. 47 are still in custody though not all of them have been convicted.
The military stated that Fenster was released on Richardson’s request and the chairman of Japan-Myanmar Friendship Association in a statement broadcast by state TV. Japan is not like the United States or the European Union and does not publicly criticize the military-installed government. It would prefer to see better relations between Myanmar, the West, and Japan.
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, who represents the Fenster family at Congress, stated that Myanmar’s generals “were convinced it wasn’t worth it to hold on to Danny.” He was innocent. He was an inconvenience for them. We would not forget what happened to him if they kept him. They would not be forgiven.”
Richardson claimed that he had discussed Fenster’s release with him during a recent trip to Myanmar, when he met with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing who is the country’s ruler.
Richardson is known for visiting countries with which Washington has very poor relations (e.g. North Korea) to secure the release of American detained citizens.
He has a long history with Myanmar. It all started in 1994, when he became a member Congress. There he met Suukyi at her home. Suukyi had been under house arrest from a previous military government.
Shawn Crispin is the Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He stated that Fenster “never had to be jailed or sentenced for bogus offenses in the first instance.”
Crispin said that Myanmar’s military regime should stop using journalists to play in their cynical games. He also suggested that all other reporters who are still behind bars on spurious charges must be released.
This story has been corrected so that it reflects that the mass amnesty was not held on Oct. 21. It took place on Oct. 19-20.
This report was contributed by Jon Gambrell, Associated Press writer in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.