US journalist Danny Fenster released from Myanmar prison

Former US governor Bill Richardson aided the release of Fenster, who had been sentenced to 11 years in prison for unlawful association, incitement against military and breaching visa rules

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Danny Fenster, an American journalist released from a Myanmar prison and deported on Monday on the eve of a sedition and terrorism trial, is reported to be humble and positive.

Fenster said he was healthy and happy to be heading home after flying to Qatar following his release from prison in Myanmar.

His release followed negotiations between former US diplomat Bill Richardson and Myanmar's junta.

Fenster, 37, said after arriving in Doha that he was not starved or beaten while in captivity.

He flew out of Myanmar with Mr Richardson and the Richardson Centre posted a picture on social media showing the two of them together about to board a plane.

“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,” Mr Richardson said.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's government in February and launched a bloody crackdown that has killed more than 1,200 people, a local monitoring group reported.

Fenster, who had been working for local media outlet Frontier Myanmar for about a year, was arrested in May as he tried to leave the country to see his family.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Fenster's release in a statement:

“We welcome the release of American journalist Daniel Fenster from prison in Burma, where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months. I commend Ambassador Tom Vajda and his team at US embassy Rangoon, Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, the expertise of Consular Affairs and the dedicated partners, including Governor Bill Richardson, who helped enable Danny’s release.

“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.”

Last week, a court inside Yangon's Insein prison sentenced him to 11 years for unlawful association, incitement against the military and breaching visa rules — charges his lawyer and the US government said were unfounded.

He was expected to face sedition and terrorism charges on Tuesday, but was unexpectedly released and flown out of the country, narrowly evading a ruling that could jailed him for life.

Andrew Nachemson, Fenster's friend and colleague at Frontier Myanmar, said his release was “wonderful news".

“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.”

Nachemson, who left Myanmar in April due to fears of his own safety, told AFP that Fenster “was always one of the most positive people in the room".

“He doesn't need to be the centre of attention … he doesn't need a ton of credit,” he said.

Fenster was happy working behind the scenes as Frontier's managing editor, he said, shaping and finessing the copy of local journalists that had earned the outlet a respected reputation.

“Everyone that's worked with him has only the best things to say about him … he was really just a warm, friendly, great presence to have around in the office,” he said.

The two became friends during weekends spent hiking, swimming and kayaking outside Yangon, where they had moved to cover Myanmar's transition to democratic rule.

Even with the economy surging and democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi restored to political power, the country was beset with a lot of problems people “didn't want to talk about”, Nachemson said.

“Somebody like Danny wanted to talk about the fact that journalists were still being arrested, that the Rohingya were still being killed,” he said.

“He cared a lot about truth and combating authoritarianism.”

Fenster's arrest on May 24 and subsequent 11-year sentence sparked outrage among press freedom groups and raised fears the junta was heading back to the censorship, intimidation and propaganda of previous military regimes.

While still in detention, Fenster's contact with the outside world was limited to visits with his partner and telephone calls with his family.

The only way Nachemson could reach his friend — who was believed to have contracted Covid-19 during his detention — was through letters.

At the time of his release Monday, Fenster had spent 176 days behind bars.

Other foreign journalists detained by the junta have been held for shorter periods, including fellow American Nathan Maung, who was freed in June, two weeks after Fenster's arrest.

Maung was “shocked” and “angry” when he heard of last week's sentence, he told AFP, and added that US diplomacy had also been a factor in his release.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: November 15, 2021, 7:12 PM