BANGKOK (AP) - BANGKOK (AP) -- American journalist Danny Fenster, sentenced only days ago to 11 years hard labor in Myanmar, has been freed and is on his way home, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson said Monday.
Richardson said in a statement that Fenster had been handed over to him in Myanmar and would return to the U.S. via Qatar over the next day and a half.
"This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work," Richardson said in a statement emailed from his office. "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."
Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations.
Fenster's sentence was the harshest punishment yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since the military took power.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the decision, saying in a statement that it was "an unjust conviction of an innocent person."
Richardson says he negotiated Fenster's release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face meetings with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military leader who ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.
Richardson, who also served as governor of New Mexico and secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, has a record of acting as a sort of freelance diplomat.
He is best known for traveling to nations with which Washington has poor, if any relations -- such as North Korea -- to obtain the freedom of detained Americans.
Recently he has been involved in seeking freedom for U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela, another country with which Washington has strained ties.
Richardson has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of U.S. Congress he met Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest since 1989 under a previous military government.
He last visited Myanmar in 2018 to advise on the crisis involving the country's Muslim Rohingya minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar's military in 2017 launched a brutal crackdown.
In an interview with The Associated Press after his most recent visit to Myanmar, Richardson had said his talks there had focused on facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country, particularly the provision of COVID-19 vaccines,
He said his staff had been in touch with Fenster's family, and when asked if there was hope for Danny Fenster's release, he replied: "There's always hope. Don't ask any more."
A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday sentenced detained U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison with hard labor 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 organizations 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.
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.
Fenster has been detained since May. He still faces two additional serious charges in a different court for allegedly violating the counterterrorism 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 was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.
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 license, 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 U.N. 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 Monday had been filed in a different court in Yangon.
Than Zaw Aung said that one of the new charges comes under a section of the Counterterrorism Act that is punishable by from 10 years to life in prison. The military-installed government has said it would apply the law harshly in cases involving opposition organizations it has officially deemed "terrorist" groups." Involvement can include contacting such groups, or reporting their statements.
The other charge is under the penal code and is usually referred to as treason or sedition. It carries a penalty of seven to 20 years’ imprisonment.
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, and it appeared that he was judged guilty by association.
Much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on his being employed by one of the media outlets, Myanmar Now, another online news site, that had been ordered closed this year. But Fenster had left his job at Myanmar Now in July last year, joining Frontier Myanmar the following month.
Prosecution witnesses testified that they were informed by a letter from the Information Ministry that its records showed that Fenster continued to be employed this year by Myanmar Now.
Both Myanmar Now and Frontier Myanmar had issued public statements that Fenster had left the former publication last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar.
Than Zaw Aung also said he was unable to produce a government official to testify, which would be difficult to do under any circumstances, and the judge took into account only the Information Ministry letter.
"Therefore, according to this letter, Danny is responsible for Myanmar Now and the judge said that’s why Danny was sentenced," said the lawyer.
He said Fenster told him he despises both the Myanmar police and Swe Win, his boss and editor-in-chief at Myanmar Now, whom he blames for his situation because he apparently forgot to inform the Information Ministry of his resignation last year.
The U.S. 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.
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Previously, Frontier Myanmar had reported he faced a charge that carries a potential three-year prison term.