BANGKOK (AP) — American journalist Danny Fenster, who spent nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar and was facing a sentence of 11 years of hard labor, was freed Monday and is on his way home.
Fenster was handed over to former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release, and the two landed in Doha, Qatar.
“I’m feeling all right physically,” a bearded Fenster, in baggy drawstring pants and a hat, said on the tarmac in comments carried by the Al Jazeera network. While still jailed, Fenster told his lawyer that he believed he had COVID-19, though prison authorities denied that.
Fenster, the managing editor of online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations. He is one of more than 100 journalists, media officials or publishers who have been detained since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February, and his was the harshest sentence yet.
“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 U.N., 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 has been in detention since he was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was headed to the Detroit area 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 following the military’s seizure of power. Fenster used to work for the site but left that job last year.
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.
“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 Blinken said in a statement, using an old name for the country. “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.
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.
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 Association. Japan, unlike the United States 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 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. 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 negotiations with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s 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.
He also has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of the U.S. Congress he met Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest ordered by a previous military government.
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.
When asked by the AP 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 that Fenster continued to be employed this year by the online news site Myanmar Now — one of dozens of outlets ordered shut in the press crackdown.
Both his former and current employers issued public statements that Fenster had left Myanmar Now last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar.