BANGKOK — American journalist Danny Fenster, who spent nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar and was sentenced last week to 11 years of hard labor, was freed Monday and began his journey home.
Fenster was given to Bill Richardson (ex-diplomat from the United States), who helped in negotiating the release and they landed together in Doha, Qatar.
“I’m feeling all right physically,” a bearded Fenster, in baggy drawstring pants and a knit hat, told journalists on the tarmac. “It’s just the same privations and things that come with any form of incarceration. The only thing is that you get a little crazy. The longer it drags on, the more worried you are that it’s just never going to end. So that was the biggest concern, just staying sane through that.”
Fenster, who was still being held, told his lawyer that although he believes he has COVID-19, he was not yet released from prison.
Frontier Myanmar’s managing editor, Fenster was found guilty of false and inflammatory information dissemination, violating visa regulations, and contacting illegal organisations. He learned that he was also facing additional charges for terrorism and theft statutes days before his conviction. This put him in danger of receiving a longer term of imprisonment.
His was one of over 100 journalists, media officers, or publishers detained by the military since February’s ouster of the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. It is the most severe sentence.
“This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work,” Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and past ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement emailed by his office. “We are so grateful that Danny will finally be able to reconnect with his loved ones, who have been advocating for him all this time, against immense odds.”
Fenster was taken into custody on May 24, when he attempted to fly to Detroit to visit his family.
“We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home — we cannot wait to hold him in our arms,” his family said in a statement. “We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months.”
The exact allegations against Fenster were never clear, but much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on proving that he was employed by another online news site that was ordered closed this year during a crackdown on the media following the military’s seizure of power. Fenster worked for this site previously, but he left the job in January.
Fenster, a native of the Detroit area, has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wayne State University, and had worked for a newspaper in Louisiana before moving to Southeast Asia, according to Deadline Detroit, a news website to which he was an occasional contributor.
His brother, Bryan Fenster, has said he had “passion for writing about folks who struggle and fight for social justice” and was particularly interested in the plight of people from the Muslim Rohingya minority, hundreds of thousands of whom fled Myanmar during a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by the army in 2017.
Frontier Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean said Fenster was “one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup.”
The U.N. reports that at least 126 journalists and media representatives or publishers were detained by military personnel since the takeover. 47 others remain in custody but have not been charged.
A statement on state television stated that Fenster was freed at Richardson’s request. Japan does not, like the United States of America and the European Union take a public confrontational stance against the military-installed governments and wants to see improvements in relations between Myanmar (West) and Japan.
The generals in Myanmar “were convinced that it wasn’t worth it to hang on to Danny,” U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, who represents the Fenster family in Congress, told Detroit radio station WWJ. “He was innocent, and he was just an annoyance for them. We would not forget what happened to him if they had kept him. We would never forgive them.”
Richardson said he discussed Fenster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face negotiations with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s ruler.
Richardson is known for traveling to nations with which Washington has poor, if any, relations — such as North Korea — to obtain the freedom of detained Americans.
His involvement in Myanmar is not new. He first met Suu Kyi as a Congressman at her house, after she was under house arrest.
Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Fenster “never should have been jailed or sentenced on bogus charges in the first place.”
“Myanmar’s military regime must stop using journalists as pawns in their cynical games and release all the other reporters still languishing behind bars on spurious charges,” Crispin added.