US journalist says he’s healthy after being freed in Myanmar

Danny Fenster was sentenced to 11 years in prison last week. PHOTO: AFP

DOHA/YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) - US journalist Danny Fenster said he was healthy and happy to be heading home after flying to Qatar following his release from prison in Myanmar on Monday (Nov 15).

His release followed negotiations between former US diplomat Bill Richardson and the ruling military junta.

Fenster, 37, the managing editor of independent online magazine Frontier Myanmar, said after arriving in Doha that he was not starved or beaten while in captivity.

Fenster was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Friday for incitement and violations of laws on immigration and unlawful assembly, a ruling that drew international condemnation.

He flew out of Myanmar with Richardson. The Richardson Center posted a picture on social media of the two of them together about to board the jet.

"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, who visited Myanmar earlier this month, said in a statement.

Fenster was among dozens of media workers detained in Myanmar since a Feb 1 coup that led to an outpouring of public anger over the military's abrupt end to a decade of tentative steps towards democracy.

He had been working at local outlet Frontier Myanmar for around a year and was arrested as he headed home to see his family in May.

Fenster, who spent 176 days in detention, was sentenced to 11 years in prison last week for encouraging dissent against the military, unlawful association and breaching immigration law.

He was due to go on trial on Tuesday on charges of terrorism and sedition, which could have seen him jailed for life.

"It's wonderful news for all of his friends and family," his colleague at Frontier Myanmar Andrew Nachemson said. "But of course he never should have spent six months in jail... and all the local journalists who remain imprisoned should also be released immediately."

Earlier this month, former US diplomat and hostage negotiator Bill Richardson met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyidaw, handing the increasingly isolated junta some rare publicity.

Mr Richardson said at the time that the US State Department had asked him not to raise Fenster's case during his visit.

Fenster is believed to have contracted Covid-19 during his detention, family members said during a conference call with American journalists in August.

"This is fantastic news for Danny and his family," International Crisis Group's Myanmar senior adviser Richard Horsey said. "He had done nothing wrong and should never have been put through this hell."

Mr Horsey added: "It is also important at this moment to remember the many Myanmar journalists who have been unjustly detained, who must also be released."

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military seized power in a February coup and ousted Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government.

More than 1,200 people have been killed by security forces in a crackdown on dissent, according to a local monitoring group.

The press has also been squeezed as the junta tries to tighten control over the flow of information, throttling internet access and revoking the licences of local media outlets.

More than 100 journalists have been arrested since the putsch, according to Reporting Asean, a monitoring group. It says at least 30 are still in detention.

The coup snuffed out Myanmar's short-lived experiment with democracy, with Ms Suu Kyi now facing a raft of charges in a junta court that could see her jailed for decades.

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