Journalist Danny Fenster back in US after release from Myanmar jail

US journalist Danny Fenster (second from left) is reunited with his family at JFK airport on Nov 16, 2021.
US journalist Danny Fenster (second from left) is reunited with his family at JFK airport on Nov 16, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - An American journalist jailed for six months by Myanmar's military rulers returned to the United States on Tuesday (Nov 16), saying it felt "incredible" to be reunited with his family.

Danny Fenster hugged his parents after landing at New York's JFK airport at around 8am (9pm Singapore time) with former diplomat and Cabinet secretary Bill Richardson, who secured his release from prison on Monday.

Fenster, 37, told reporters he would briefly celebrate his release with relatives before turning his attention to other journalists and "prisoners of conscience" jailed in Myanmar.

"There are a lot of citizens, doctors, teachers that are in prison. This will be a short celebration. Let's keep focused on what the actual story is here," he said.

Looking gaunt and unshaven after his ordeal in captivity and wearing an orange-red knit hat, Fenster said his return home had been "a long time coming."

"It's a moment that I have been imagining so intensely for so long," he told reporters.

"It surpasses everything I imagined."

Fenster was handed an 11-year sentence last week for incitement, unlawful association and breaching visa rules.

He was pardoned and freed on Monday, a day before he was to face terror and sedition charges that could have seen him jailed for life, and flew to the Qatari capital Doha.

Myanmar's military has squeezed the press since taking power in a February coup, arresting dozens of journalists critical of its crackdown, which has killed more than 1,200 people according to a local monitoring group.

Fenster had been working at Frontier Myanmar, a local outlet in the South-east Asian country, for around a year and was arrested as he headed home to see his family in May.

The junta said Fenster was released on "humanitarian grounds," ending 176 days spent in a colonial-era prison where many of Myanmar's most famous dissidents have been held.

He was freed with a "view to maintaining friendly relations between nations," a report in state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said on Tuesday.

It came following "face-to-face negotiations" between Richardson and junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, who the US doesn't recognise as Myanmar's legitimate ruler.

"I was incredibly grateful to see Bill and his team on the tarmac waiting for me," Fenster told a press conference at a hotel at Kennedy airport.

"I just have so much gratitude right now for everything everyone's done."

'No reason'

Richardson visited Myanmar earlier this month on what was described as a "private humanitarian mission." He said at the time that the US State Department had specifically asked him not to raise Fenster's case during his visit.

But Richardson did so, insisting that he was working in a private capacity.

"I don't work for the US government. I was not an emissary," he said in New York.

Fenster described his days in prison, saying that he would wake early and drink instant coffee he made the night before.

Next he would read for several hours before walking outside "in a circle."

He would then lift some weights, eat, read some more and "stare at the wall."

"Every day it's sort of up and down and then you have some dark moments, and then you have some days that are just pretty much completely fine," he explained.

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.

In Doha, Fenster said he had battled to stay sane while incarcerated and feared his ordeal would not end, while insisting he should never have been detained.

"I was arrested and held in captivity for no reason... but physically I was healthy," he told journalists at the airport. "I wasn't starved or beaten."