Danny Fenster, U.S. Journalist in Myanmar, Gets 11 Years in Jail

Danny Fenster was given the toughest possible sentence on three charges, in a signal that the country’s military rulers would not bow to international pressure.

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Danny Fenster, an American journalist who has been imprisoned in Myanmar since May, was found guilty of three charges on Friday and given an 11-year prison term, the toughest possible sentence, his lawyer said.

The ruling came during a closed hearing in the city of Yangon. The lawyer, U Than Zaw Aung, said the charges stemmed from news coverage in Myanmar Now, a hard-hitting outlet that Mr. Fenster has not worked for in more than a year.

Mr. Than Zaw Aung said Mr. Fenster, 37, broke down in tears when he heard the sentence. “He said he never thought of spending 11 years in prison in his life,” he said.

Mr. Fenster said he would not appeal the ruling because “the orders came from above and it would not matter whether he appealed or not,” according to Mr. Than Zaw Aung.

The sentence seemed to be the latest signal that Myanmar’s military, which seized power in February, would not bow to pressure, including sanctions, from the United States and other countries. The State Department has repeatedly called for Mr. Fenster’s release. Courts in Myanmar have also begun giving maximum sentences to prominent opponents of military rule.

“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, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Danny Fenster has done nothing that should be considered a crime.”

He said the ruling was meant to intimidate other journalists working in Myanmar, and to send the United States a message that the ruling generals “don’t appreciate being hit with economic sanctions and can bite back with hostage diplomacy.”

Mr. Fenster could eventually face even more time in prison. Two new charges of terrorism and sedition were filed against him this week, each carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years. His lawyer said he was baffled by those charges and had yet to see any evidence supporting them.

Mr. Fenster, the only American known to be detained in Myanmar, was arrested on May 24 at Yangon International Airport as he was preparing to board a flight out of the country. He has been held at Insein Prison, which is notorious for its harsh treatment of political prisoners. Members of his family have said that they believe he contracted Covid-19 while in prison.

On Friday, Mr. Fenster was convicted of disseminating information that could be harmful to the military and violating the country’s Unlawful Association Act, receiving the maximum three-year prison term for each charge. He was also convicted of violating Myanmar’s immigration law, for which he was given the maximum sentence of five years.

Mr. Than Zaw Aung said all three charges were based on news coverage by Myanmar Now, which the military government banned in March but which continues to publish. Prosecutors have maintained that Mr. Fenster still works there, though he left the outlet in July 2020 and is now the managing editor of a magazine, Frontier Myanmar.

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A photo provided by Danny Fester’s family showing him in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2020.Credit…family courtesy photo, via Associated Press

The court ruled that the Myanmar Now coverage was potentially harmful to the military, and that it violated the unlawful association law because it included comments from members of an outlawed opposition group. By breaking those laws, the court said, Mr. Fenster had violated the terms of his visa, leading to his conviction on the immigration charge.

The key piece of evidence against Mr. Fenster was a letter from Myanmar’s Information Ministry indicating, incorrectly, that he still worked for Myanmar Now, Mr. Than Zaw Aung said. He said the court disregarded Mr. Fenster’s income tax return and other evidence showing that he works for Frontier Myanmar.

He said the court did not cite any specific Myanmar Now article in its ruling. “The court blames Danny for the news written in Myanmar Now but failed to mention which stories in Myanmar Now caused Danny to be charged,” he said.

Frontier Myanmar’s editor in chief, Thomas Kean, said there was “absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges.”

“His legal team,” Mr. Kean added, “clearly demonstrated to the court that he had resigned from Myanmar Now and was working for Frontier from the middle of last year.”

Understanding the Chaos in Myanmar

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Myanmar is on the verge of civil war. Following a military coup on Feb. 1, unrest has been growing. Peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations have given way to insurgent uprisings against the Tatmadaw, the country’s military, which ousted the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is a polarizing figure. The daughter of a hero of Myanmar’s independence, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains very popular at home. Internationally, her reputation has been tarnished by her recent cooperation with the same military generals who ousted her.

The coup ended a short span of quasi-democracy. In 2011, the Tatmadaw implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as state councillor in 2016, becoming the country’s de facto head of government.

The coup was preceded by a contested election. In the Nov. 8 election, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 83 percent of the body’s available seats. The military, whose proxy party suffered a crushing defeat, refused to accept the results of the vote.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi could face time in prison. She was detained by the junta and secretly put on trial. If convicted of all 11 charges against her, which include “inciting public unrest,” she could be sentenced to a maximum of 102 years in prison.

“Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated at this decision,” he continued. “We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family.”

Mr. Fenster, a native of Detroit, worked for news outlets there and in Louisiana before moving to Myanmar in 2019. Bryan Fenster, his brother, said that the two of them, both grandsons of Holocaust survivors, had once done volunteer work in Chicago helping a family of refugees from Myanmar, which may have influenced his decision to live there.

Myanmar’s military, which had shared power for a decade with civilian governments before the Feb. 1 coup, has since staged a violent crackdown, killing more than 1,250 people and detaining more than 7,000. More than 100 journalists have been arrested, of whom 35 are still in prison, according to a watchdog group.

The former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who has helped rescue other prisoners from autocratic countries, recently met in Myanmar with the junta’s leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. But while he secured the release of a former employee of his nonprofit organization, Mr. Richardson said he had not raised the possibility of freeing Mr. Fenster because the State Department had asked him not to.

Myanmar courts have begun giving harsh sentences to prominent politicians who have spoken out against the coup. In one case, an ousted local government chief was sentenced to 90 years on six corruption charges, and a former top state official got 75 years on five similar charges. Fifteen years was the maximum possible sentence for each count.

Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is facing 11 charges, with a possible maximum total of 102 years. She is currently being tried on most of those charges, with the first verdict expected in mid-December.

One of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s longtime aides, U Win Htein, 80, was convicted last month of sedition for publicly criticizing General Min Aung Hlaing. He received the maximum sentence of 20 years.

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