BANGKOK — A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday sentenced detained U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison after finding him guilty on several charges, including incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information.
Than Zaw Aung, lawyer for Frontier Myanmar, said that Fenster was found guilty by Than Zaw Aung of having contacted illegal organizations and of violating visa regulations. The maximum sentence for each of the charges was given to him.
Fenster was taken into custody in May. Fenster is still being held in detention since May. He faces additional charges from a separate court, for violating the antiterrorism statute and one that covers treason or sedition.
“Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated at this decision. We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family,” Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean said in a statement after the sentencing.
Fenster was heading to Detroit to visit his family when he was stopped at Yangon International Airport in May 24th.
Since February when the army overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, he is the only foreign journalist to have been convicted for a serious offense.
The military-installed government is stoking fear about press freedom by closing down all critic outlets and arresting approximately 100 journalists. Approximately 30 remain behind bars. Some closed outlets continue to operate without licenses, while their employees avoid arrest.
There were widespread peaceful protests against the army’s takeover, which were met with violence. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1200 civilians were killed and approximately 10,000 people were arrested. Since then, armed resistance has spread and U.N. observers have warned that civil war could result from the incipient rebellion.
It was unclear what Fenster had done, despite testimony from over a dozen witnesses. Much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on his being employed by one of the media outlets, Myanmar Now, that had been ordered closed this year. Fenster, however, had quit his position at Myanmar Now last July and joined Frontier Myanmar in the next month.
“The court disregarded a significant amount of evidence of his employment at Frontier, including tax and social security records and testimony from a Frontier employee,” said the statement from Frontier Myanmar.
“There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges. His legal team clearly demonstrated to the court that he had resigned from Myanmar Now and was working for Frontier from the middle of last year,” it quoted Kean as saying.
Fenster’s next challenge is the two additional charges that his lawyer said Monday had been filed in a different court in Yangon.
Than Zaw Aung announced Monday that one new charge comes under the Counterterrorism Act. It is punishable with between 10 and life imprisonment. The military-installed government has said it would apply the law harshly in cases involving opposition organizations it has deemed to be “terrorist.” Involvement can include contacting such groups, or reporting their statements.
This is the second charge under the penal code. It is often referred to by treason and sedition. It carries a penalty of seven to 20 years’ imprisonment.
The hearings on the original three charges were held at the court in Yangon’s Insein Prison, where Fenster is jailed. They were closed for the media and public. Accounts of the proceedings have come from Fenster’s lawyer.
The U.S. government, press freedom associations and Fenster’s family had pressed strongly for the 37-year-old journalist’s release.
“We remain deeply concerned over the continued detention of Danny Fenster. He was working as a journalist in Burma when he was detained,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week, referring to Myanmar’s name before it was changed in 1989 by a previous military government.
“His detention, the detention of so many others is a sad reminder of the continuing human rights, humanitarian crisis facing the country of Burma, facing the Burmese, but also facing foreign nationals, including Americans who happen to be in Burma,” Price said. “The profoundly unjust nature of Danny’s detention is plain for all the world to see and these charges only put a further spotlight on that. Again, the regime should take the prudent step of releasing him now.”