American journalist Danny Fenster, who was freed after nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, was expected to arrive in the United States on Tuesday.
Fenster, who was sentenced last week to 11 years of hard labour, was handed over Monday to former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release.
He is one of more than 100 journalists, media officials or publishers who have been detained since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.
“I’m feeling all right physically,” a bearded Fenster, in baggy drawstring pants and a knit hat, told journalists after landing in Doha, Qatar, which he passed through on his way home.
“It’s just the same privations and things that come with any form of incarceration. … The longer it drags on, the more worried you are that it’s just never going to end.” While jailed, Fenster told his lawyer that he believed he had COVID-19, though prison authorities denied that.
Fenster, the managing editor of online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organisations and violating visa regulations.
Days before his conviction, he learned he had been charged with additional violations that put him at risk of a life sentence.
“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,” Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and past ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement.
Fenster has been in detention since he was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24. He was expected to arrive in New York on Tuesday morning.
“We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home — we cannot wait to hold him in our arms,” his family said in a statement.
The exact allegations against Fenster were never clear, but much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on proving that he was employed by another online news site that was ordered closed this year during the crackdown on the media that followed the de facto coup. Fenster used to work for the site but left that job last year.
A native of the Detroit area, Fenster has a master’s degree in creative writing from Wayne State University and worked for a newspaper in Louisiana before moving to Southeast Asia, according to Deadline Detroit, a news website to which he occasionally contributed.
His brother, Bryan Fenster, has said he was particularly interested in the plight of people from the Muslim Rohingya minority, hundreds of thousands of whom fled Myanmar during a brutal counterinsurgency campaign by the army in 2017.
The generals in Myanmar “were convinced that it wasn’t worth it to hang on to Danny,” U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, who represents the Fenster family in Congress, told Detroit radio station WWJ.
“If they kept him and anything really happened to him, we would never forget it. We would never forgive them.”