Myanmar’s military regime on Monday released American journalist Danny Fenster just three days after he was sentenced to 11 years of hard labor in prison for encouraging resistance to the junta and other alleged crimes.
Fenster, the managing editor of online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was released after nearly six months in jail to former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who met with junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing two weeks earlier as part of a humanitarian mission to Myanmar. The two were on their way back to the U.S. via a flight to Qatar early on Monday.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun confirmed to RFA’s Myanmar Service that Fenster had been freed from Yangon’s Insein Prison and “deported,” although he was unable to explain why the journalist was freed.
“As usual, in this kind of case, he has to be deported. And so, he was released and deported,” the spokesman, adding that the reason for his release and other details “will be announced later.”
A court found Fenster guilty of encouraging resistance to the junta, unlawful association and violating immigration laws on Nov. 12 in a ruling that the U.S. State Department called “an unjust conviction of an innocent person.”
On Monday, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed his release, which he credited Richardson for helping to facilitate.
“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,” Blinken said in a statement.
Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico who once served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a history of serving as a kind of intermediary between the U.S. and nations with whom Washington maintains few or no ties, including North Korea and Venezuela. The U.S. has sanctioned the junta for its use of violence against opponents to its rule and relations are at a low.
On Monday, the Richardson Center released a statement by the former governor in which he said that securing Fenster’s release was the outcome “you hope will come when you do this work.”
“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,” Richardson said.
Fenster’s brother, Bryan Fenster, expressed relief that his sibling had been freed in a tweet that began by noting that Monday marked “Day 176” of the ordeal.
“We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home – we cannot wait to hold him in our arms,” the tweet said.
“We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially @GovRichardson … as well as our friends, family and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months.”
Fenster’s charges were in part based on his former work at Myanmar Now News, which continued to broadcast after the junta ordered it and other outlets to close. But the journalist had stopped working for Frontier Myanmar in July 2020, months before the military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup.
Thirty-four journalists who were arrested in Myanmar following the coup remain in custody following prisoner amnesties that many had hoped would see them freed, sources in the country say.
Many of the reporters who remain jailed have been charged with defaming Myanmar’s military or for suspected ties with the opposition National Unity Government or the local People’s Defense Force militias set up to resist military rule, sources say.
Paris-based RSF ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in the 2021 edition of its annual World Press Freedom Index and singled out junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as among the world’s 37 worst leaders in terms of media restrictions.
The country has fallen in position every year since it was ranked 131st in 2017.
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