Yangon: A court in military-ruled Myanmar jailed American journalist Danny Fenster for 11 years , his lawyer and his employer said Friday. The sentence came despite US calls for his release from what it said was unjust detention. Danny Fenster, 37, is the managing editor of online magazine ‘Frontier Myanmar’. He was found guilty of incitement and violations of immigration and unlawful associations’ laws, his magazine said. It described the sentences as ‘the harshest possible under the law’.
Fenster is the first Western journalist sentenced to prison in recent years in Myanmar. It is the country where a February 1 coup by the military against an elected government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi ended a decade of tentative steps towards democracy and triggered nationwide protests.
“There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges,” said Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of ‘Frontier Myanmar’. Incidentally, ‘Frontline Myanmar’ is one of the country’s top independent news outlets. “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,” Kean added.
Fenster was arrested while trying to leave Myanmar in May. He has since then been held in the notorious Insein prison here, where hundreds of opponents of the ‘Tatmadaw’, as the military is known, were jailed, many beaten and tortured, during decades of dictatorship.
Fenster was charged with additional, and more serious, offences of sedition and violations of the terrorism act earlier this week. This came without an explanation by authorities. Those charges are punishable by a maximum 20 years in prison each.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of ‘Human Rights Watch’, said Fenster’s jailing was also intended as warnings to the United States and the media.
“The junta’s rationale for this outrageous, rights abusing sentence is first to shock and intimidate all remaining Burmese journalists,” Robertson said.
“The second message is more strategic, focused on sending a message to the US that the Tatmadaw’s generals don’t appreciate being hit with economic sanctions and can bite back with hostage diplomacy,” added Robertson.
Fenster’s family has repeatedly called for his release. They have said they were heartbroken about his detention. His trial had not been made public and a spokesman for the junta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The United States has been pushing for Fenster’s release. The US embassy here Myanmar did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday’s verdict.
The US State Department had earlier said his detention was ‘profoundly unjust’ and ‘plain for the world to see’. It had urged the junta to release him immediately.
The American is among dozens of journalists who were detained in Myanmar after protests and strikes erupted following the coup. Independent media has been accused by the junta of incitement.
More than 1,200 civilians have been killed in protests and thousands detained since the coup, according to activists cited by the United Nations.
Myanmar authorities overlooked Fenster in a recent amnesty for hundreds of people detained over anti-junta protests. Among them were some journalists.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, called the sentence a ‘reprehensible outcome’. “Danny should have never been arrested in the first place. To sentence him to a combined 11 years shows how far Myanmar authorities are willing to go to signal that they do not respect independent media,” she said.
Frontier Myanmar’s publisher, Sonny Swe, who spent eight years in prison during the previous era of military rule, announced Fenster’s imprisonment on Twitter under the message: “A lot of things are going so wrong in this country.”