NEW YORK: American journalist Danny Fenster, who was freed after nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, arrived Tuesday in the United States for an emotional reunion with his family.
Fenster, who was sentenced last week to 11 years of hard labor, 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.
Fenster said it “feels incredible” to be home as he arrived in New York. It's been a “long time coming, a moment I had been imagining so intensely for so long. Surpasses everything I had imagined.”
His mother, Rose, rushed over to hug him as he stepped out of a car outside an airport hotel. His brother and father also embraced him.
While jailed, Fenster told his lawyer that he believed he had COVID-19, though prison authorities denied that. Late Monday, as he transited through Qatar, he told reporters that he was physically OK and had not been starved or beaten while in custody.
Fenster, the managing editor of online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations 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 on Monday.
Fenster — with long hair and an unruly beard that couldn’t be contained by a blue surgical mask — said the first thing he would do is get a shave and a haircut. He wore a knit hat that he said was a gift from another prisoner.
His mother described the ordeal as a “nightmare” and the family expressed relief that it was over.
It “feels great, he’s safe, that’s all we want,” his father, Buddy, said.
Fenster has been in detention since he was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24.
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 military takeover. 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.”
Richardson is known for traveling to nations with which Washington has poor, if any, relations — such as North Korea — to obtain the freedom of detained Americans.
He also has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994, when as a member of Congress he met Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest ordered by a previous military government.