US journalist says not ‘starved or beaten’ in Myanmar jail ordeal
A US journalist said he wasn’t “starved or beaten” but was worried his ordeal would never end after he was freed from prison in Myanmar and deported on Monday.
Danny Fenster, looking gaunt after his six-month imprisonment, said he was held for no reason but not mistreated by the Myanmar authorities.
He was freed a day before facing terror and sedition charges.
“I was arrested and held in captivity for no reason… but physically I was healthy,” he told journalists after arriving in the Qatari capital Doha. “I wasn’t starved or beaten.”
Fenster had been working at Frontier Myanmar, a local outlet in the Southeast Asian country, for around a year and was arrested as he headed home to see his family in May.
Myanmar’s military has squeezed the press since taking power in a February coup, arresting dozens of journalists critical of its crackdown on dissent, which has killed more than 1,200 people according to a local monitoring group.
“I’m feeling all right physically. It’s just the same privations that come with any form of incarceration. You’re just going a little stir-crazy,” Fenster said, who will fly onwards to the US from Doha.
“The longer it drags on, the more worried you become that it’s never going to end. So that’s the biggest concern, just staying sane through that.”
Fenster was jailed for 11 years last week for incitement, unlawful association and breaching visa rules, and had been due to appear in court on Tuesday to face sedition and terror charges.
But on Monday he was pardoned and released on “humanitarian grounds” the junta said, ending 176 days spent in a colonial-era prison where many of Myanmar’s most famous dissidents have been held.
– ‘We are overjoyed’ –
The 37-year-old’s release was secured following “face-to-face negotiations” between former US diplomat Bill Richardson and junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, Richardson’s organisation said in a statement.
In a statement, the family expressed their relief at Fenster’s release.
“We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home — we cannot wait to hold him in our arms,” the statement said, thanking Richardson for his help.
A photo posted by the Richardson Center showed Fenster standing in shorts and flip flops in front of a small plane alongside the former New Mexico governor on the tarmac in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw.
“It’s wonderful news for all of his friends and family,” his colleague at Frontier Myanmar Andrew Nachemson told AFP.
“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.”
The junta said two Japanese envoys, Hideo Watanabe and Yohei Sasakawa had been involved in the negotiations to release Fenster, without providing details.
– ‘Hostage’ –
The United States welcomed his release, saying he had been “wrongfully detained.”
“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,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, using Myanmar’s former name.
Richardson visited Myanmar earlier this month on what was described as a “private humanitarian mission.”
He said at the time that the US State Department had asked him not to raise Fenster’s case during his visit.
Fenster is believed to have contracted Covid-19 during his detention, family members said during a conference call with American journalists in August.
“I doubt there were any concessions” from the US, International Crisis Group’s Myanmar senior advisor Richard Horsey told AFP.
“More likely it was politely explained that keeping US citizens hostage is a bad idea.”
He added: “It is also important at this moment to remember the many Myanmar journalists who have been unjustly detained, who must also be released.”
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military seized power in a February coup and ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected civilian government.
More than 10,000 people have been arrested by security forces in a crackdown on dissent, according to a local monitoring group.
The press has also been squeezed as the junta tries to tighten control over the flow of information, throttling internet access and revoking the licences of local media outlets.
More than 100 journalists have been arrested since the putsch, according to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group. It says at least 30 are still in detention.
The coup snuffed out Myanmar’s short-lived experiment with democracy, with Suu Kyi now facing a raft of charges in a junta court that could see her jailed for decades.