Myanmar court sentences US journalist to 11 years in jail

US State Department condemns the conviction of Danny Fenster, human rights group calls prison sentence a "travesty of justice by a kangaroo court"

A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday sentenced detained US journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison with hard labour after finding him guilty on several charges, including incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information.

Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was also found guilty of contacting illegal organisations and violating visa regulations, lawyer Than Zaw Aung said. He was sentenced to the maximum term on each charge and ordered to pay a 100,000 kyat ($56) fine.

The US State Department condemned the sentencing in a statement released by Ned Price, the department's spokesman.

"The Burmese military regime’s sentencing of US journalist Danny Fenster is an unjust conviction of an innocent person. The United States condemns this decision. We are closely monitoring Danny’s situation and will continue to work for his immediate release.  We will do so until Danny returns home safely to his family," the statement read.

Than Zaw Aung said Fenster wept in court after hearing the sentence and had not yet decided whether to appeal. He is the only foreign journalist to be convicted of a serious offense since the army seized power in February, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

He still faces two additional serious charges in a different court for reportedly violating the counter-terrorism law and a statute covering treason and sedition.

“Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated at this decision. We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family,” editor-in-chief Thomas Kean said in a statement after the sentencing. “There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges.″

Fenster has been detained since May.

The military-installed government has cracked down hard on press freedom, shutting virtually all critical outlets and arresting about 100 journalists, roughly 30 of whom remain in jail. Some of the closed outlets have continued operating without a licence, publishing online as their staff members dodge arrest.

The army takeover was met by widespread peaceful protests that were put down with lethal force. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has detailed the deaths of more than 1,200 civilians, in addition to about 10,000 arrests. Armed resistance has since spread, and UN experts and others observers fear the incipient insurgency can slide into civil war.

Fenster’s next challenge is the two additional charges that his lawyer said on Monday had been filed in a different court in Yangon.

The hearings on the original three charges were held at the court in Yangon’s Insein Prison, where Fenster is jailed. They were closed to the press and the public. Accounts of the proceedings have come from Fenster’s lawyer.

Despite testimony from more than a dozen prosecution witnesses, it was never clear exactly what Fenster was alleged to have done.

The US government, human rights groups, press freedom associations and Fenster’s family had pressed strongly for the 37-year-old journalist’s release.

“This long prison sentence against a journalist is a travesty of justice by a kangaroo court operating at the beck and call of the Myanmar military junta,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“Danny Fenster has done nothing that should be considered a crime. This bogus conviction should be quashed, and Fenster should be immediately released and permitted to leave the country if that is what he wants.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, also called for Fenster’s immediate and unconditional release.

”Myanmar must stop jailing journalists for merely doing their job of reporting the news,” he said.

Updated: November 12th 2021, 8:53 PM