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Myanmar frees jailed American journalist sentenced to 11 years’ hard labor

U.S. journalist Danny Fenster working on a laptop
American journalist Danny Fenster works out of his van, which turned into an office, in Detroit in 2018.
(Fenster family)

American journalist Danny Fenster, who was recently sentenced to 11 years of hard labor after spending nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, was freed and on his way home Monday, said a former U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the release.

Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations. His sentence was the harshest yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since the military ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February.

“This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work,” Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and past U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement. “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.”

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Fenster was handed over to Richardson in Myanmar and will return to the U.S. via Qatar over the next day and a half, according to the statement. He had been in detention since he was taken into custody at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was headed to the Detroit area in the U.S. to see 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.”

It was never exactly clear what Fenster was alleged to have done, 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 after the military’s seizure of power. Fenster used to work for the site but left that job last year.

Burmese in the U.S. are protesting the brutal crackdown and urging global intervention. But it’s hard to overcome a lack of knowledge and interest.

According to the United Nations, at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers have been detained by the military since the takeover and 47 remain in custody, though not all of them have been charged.

Of the seven journalists known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals, and four were released in a mass amnesty in October.

“We welcome the release of American journalist Daniel Fenster from prison in Burma, where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement, using an old name for Myanmar. “We are glad that Danny will soon be reunited with his family as we continue to call for the release of others who remain unjustly imprisoned in Burma.”

Frontier Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean echoed those sentiments.

“Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup,” he said.

Anti-coup demonstrators are abandoning peaceful protest for armed resistance as the deposed civilian government appeals to ethnic rebels to join the fight. The United Nations warns of a ‘bloodbath.’

In a statement broadcast on state TV, the military said that Fenster had been released at the request of Richardson and the chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Friendship Assn. Japan, unlike the U.S. and the European Union, does not take a publicly confrontational stance with the military-installed government and would like to see improved relations between Myanmar and the West.

“The Burmese generals were convinced that it wasn’t worth it to hang on to Danny,” U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) told Detroit radio station WWJ. “He was innocent, and he was just an annoyance for them. If they kept him and anything really happened to him, we would never forget it. We would never forgive them.”

Richardson said he discussed Fenster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face meetings with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military ruler.

Richardson is best known for traveling to nations with which Washington has poor, if any, relations — such as North Korea — to obtain the freedom of detained Americans.

The U.N.'s humanitarian chief is urging Myanmar’s military junta to allow unimpeded access to more than 3 million people in desperate need of help.

He also has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when, as a member of Congress, he met Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest since 1989 under a previous military government.

He last visited Myanmar in 2018 to advise on the crisis involving the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military in 2017 launched a brutal crackdown.

In an interview with the Associated Press after his most recent visit to Myanmar, Richardson said his talks there had focused on facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country, particularly the provision of COVID-19 vaccines. That mission also resulted in the release from jail of Aye Moe, a young woman who used to work for Richardson’s center on women’s empowerment issues.

At the time, Richardson said his staff had been in touch with Fenster’s family, and when asked then if there was hope for Fenster’s release, he replied: “There’s always hope. Don’t ask any more.”

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.

During Fenster’s trial, prosecution witnesses testified that they were informed by a letter from the Information Ministry that its records showed Fenster continued to be employed this year by the online news site Myanmar Now — one of dozens of outlets ordered shut in a press crackdown.

Both his former and current employers issued public statements saying that Fenster had left Myanmar Now last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he worked for Frontier Myanmar. But without a government official’s testimony to that effect, the judge took into account only the letter from the Information Ministry.


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