In yet another action that symbolizes the authoritarianism of the military dictatorship in Myanmar, a court controlled by the junta on Friday (12) sentenced the American journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison.
Despite US calls for his release, Fenster, 37, who was the editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Frontier Myanmar, was found guilty of crimes such as incitement, association with illegals and violating immigration laws. According to the magazine, the sentences were “as harsh as possible”.
“There is absolutely no basis for convicting Danny on these charges,” said Thomas Kean, also editor of Frontier Myanmar, one of the country’s leading independent news outlets. “Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated with this decision. We just want to get Danny free as soon as possible so he can go back to his family.”
Fenster is the first Western journalist sentenced to prison in Myanmar’s recent history, but dozens of local professionals faced similar charges or had to leave the country, which has been experiencing an authoritarian escalation since Feb. 1, when the military staged a coup d’état against the country. civil government alleging election fraud.
The seizure of power sparked a series of protests and, in response by the military junta, a wave of violent crackdowns against protesters that left more than 1,200 dead and 9,000 imprisoned, according to the Myanmar Political Prisoners Assistance Association.
Fenster was arrested in May while trying to leave the country to return to Michigan, the US state where he was born, and surprise his family. Since then, he has been held in Rangoon’s famous Insein prison, where he has faced bouts of depression, according to his lawyer.
The detention center was known to be the destination of hundreds of opponents of the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar Armed Forces are called). There are numerous accounts of detainees beaten and tortured over the decades the military ran the country.
In addition to the alleged crimes he has already been convicted of, Fenster received new charges this week. According to his lawyer, the journalist will now face sedition and terrorism and, if found guilty, could face another 20 years in prison for each crime.
For Phil Robertson, deputy director of the NGO Human Rights Watch in Asia, Fenster’s arrest is an attempt by the military to convey a warning to the US and the free press.
“The board’s justification for this outrageous sentence of rights abuse is to first shock and intimidate all remaining journalists in Myanmar by punishing a foreigner in this way,” said Robertson.
“The second message is more strategic, focused on sending a message to the US that the Tatmadaw generals don’t appreciate being hit by economic sanctions and can strike back with hostage diplomacy.”
Fenster’s trial was not previously publicized and was not attended by independent observers. A spokesman for the military junta did not respond to inquiries from international news agencies.
The journalist’s family, as well as US diplomats, have repeatedly called for his release. In a statement, the US State Department called the arrest “profoundly unfair.”
According to a Fenster brother, the journalist was drawn to work in Myanmar driven by an interest in human rights coverage, in particular the expulsion of members of the Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017, described by the UN as an act of genocidal intent by Myanmar.
Last month, some 5,600 inmates received amnesty and a freed charter after the head of the country’s ruling junta made a speech saying the military was committed to peace and democracy. Fenster was not among those freed, many of whom were later detained again.
At the time, analysts described the action as an attempt to maneuver by the dictatorship to clean up its image by simulating a process of opening up the regime. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had shortly before excluded the head of the junta from its summit.
“First of all, Danny should never have been arrested, and sentencing him to 11 years shows how far Myanmar authorities are willing to go to signal that they don’t respect independent media,” said Ming Yu Hah, deputy regional director of Amnesty International, who described the arrest as “the reprehensible result of a deeply flawed case”.
In July, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a report in which it said that, in practice, Myanmar has criminalized independent journalism and has become one of the most imprisoning countries in the world.