Fenster after being freed from Myanmar: I'm 'really happy to be on my way home'

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Metro Detroit journalist Danny Fenster was freed Monday in a surprise twist just days after being sentenced to 11 years of hard labor in military-ruled Myanmar, bringing to an end a diplomatic saga nearly six months in the making.

After arriving in Qatar, Fenster later told reporters that he was feeling "great" after his release from jail. Just three days prior, a secretive and heavily political court convicted him, despite little evidence, of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations.

Fenster instead was handed over on Monday to former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release, and the two flew out of the Southeast Asian country together to Qatar. Specific details about Fenster's return have not been made public, but he is expected to be back in the United States as early as Tuesday.

“I feel great and am really happy to be on my way home. I’m incredibly happy for everything Bill has done,” Fenster told Reuters, referring to Richardson.

Fenster told reporters that while he worried about staying sane through his captivity, he wasn't physically threatened. "I wasn't starved or beaten," he said.

In this photo provided by the Richardson Center, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson, right, poses with journalist Danny Fenster in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Richardson said in a statement Monday that Fenster had been released from prison and handed over to him in Myanmar and would be soon on his way home via Qatar.

Fenster, the managing editor of online magazine Frontier Myanmar, 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. He was the first western journalist sentenced to prison in years in Myanmar, and his was the harshest sentence yet.

Fenster told Reuters that efforts to free other journalists — at least 47 others are in detention, according to the United Nations — would continue.

"We're going to keep the focus on them as much as possible and do everything we can to lobby on their behalf," he told Reuters. "We're still trying really hard to get them out of there."

Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and past ambassador to the U.N., in a statement emailed by his office, said: “This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work. 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.”

Journalist Danny Fenster, who spent nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar and was facing a sentence of 11 years of hard labor, has been freed. Here, he talks to the media at Doha, Qatar, airport, Monday.  On the right is diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release.

Fenster will return to the United States through Qatar over the next day and a half, according to the statement. The journalist is expected in Michigan sometime Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, told WJR's Kevin Dietz on Monday, adding he would defer to the State Department on further details.

Fenster family spokeswoman Anna Epstein said they were still working on specific details of a reunion as his parents, Buddy and Rose, and brother, Bryan, await his return.

Fenster had been in detention since he was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was headed to the Detroit area to see his family.

“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. “We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months.”

It was never exactly clear what Fenster was alleged to have done, 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 a crackdown on the media following the military’s seizure of power. Fenster used to work for the site but left that job last year.

In a statement broadcast on state TV, the military said Fenster had been released at the request of Richardson and the chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Friendship Association. Japan, unlike the United States and the European Union, does not take a publicly confrontational stance with the military-installed government and would like to see improved relations between Myanmar and the West.

“The Burmese generals were convinced that it wasn’t worth it to hang on to Danny,” Levin told Detroit radio station WWJ. “He was innocent, and he was just an annoyance for them. If they kept him and anything really happened to him, we would never forget it. We would never forgive them.”

The parents of detained journalist Danny Fenster, Buddy and Rose Fenster and brother Bryan Fenster gather in Huntington Woods, Michigan, on June 4, 2021.

Family friends said they were overjoyed with the news.

“What a blessing,” said Kathy Bowden of Davison. “Danny is loved by so many people. This is the best ending to the story.”

She described an emotional rollercoaster where, in the span of just a few days, Fenster went from being sentenced to 11 years in prison to being given his immediate release.

Collette Drouillard, a Michigan native who now lives in Valdosta, Georgia, has worn a T-shirt calling for Fenster’s release since shortly after his arrest in May.

She’s had the T-shirt so long that its printing is faded, she said. But she didn’t want to get a new one because she was hoping it would be unnecessary. She was happy to see her dream come true.

“That is awesome news,” Drouillard said. “This is a wonderful surprise.”

Other Michigan elected officials shared their relief that Fenster is returning home and praised the work done to secure his release.

"It was a result of steady, patient work by diplomats and folks in the intelligence community around the world who rarely get any credit," Levin told The Detroit News. "But I've learned how wonderful so many of them are. I can't wait to see Bryan, Buddy and Rose and the whole family and to meet Danny Fenster in person, and to celebrate with the Huntington Woods residents, the Berkley Bears, the Jewish community and all the good people worldwide who never gave up hope and never stopped fighting to Bring Danny Home."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said in a statement: "This nightmare is finally over for Danny’s family, friends and loved ones. Danny was doing incredible work telling the stories of the Burmese people — and his unjust detention was an attack on the freedom of the press."

In a Monday tweet, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer thanked Richardson, Levin and the State Department "for working hard behind the scenes to advocate for Danny and get him back to his family."

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, told The News on Monday that she couldn't believe what she was reading when she saw that Fenster had been released. 

"The best thing to wake up to at 5 o'clock this morning," she said, thanking those involved.

Stevens added she felt Fenster coming home was a great sign that the country could bring back other people wrongfully incarcerated in other countries. She cited Paul Whelan, who is being held in a Russian penal colony after being convicted of espionage in 2020.

According to the United Nations, at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers have been detained by the military since the takeover and 47 remain in custody, though not all of them have been charged.

Of seven journalists known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals and four were released in a mass amnesty in October.

“We welcome the release of American journalist Daniel Fenster from prison in Burma, where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, using an old name for the country. “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.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday afternoon that U.S. officials met briefly with Fenster after he was released and added that Richardson and other officials will welcome Danny home when he lands in the United States.

"We are extremely grateful 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," Price said during a briefing. Price said he wasn't aware of any conditions tied to Fenster's release.

Frontier Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean echoed those sentiments.

“Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup,” he said.

The Detroit Press Club also welcomed Fenster's release.

“Danny’s freedom is a victory for freedom of the press throughout the world," said Detroit Press Club President Bob Giles in a Monday statement, adding the club appreciated the effort of Richardson in negotiating the journalist's freedom.

"As we celebrate Danny’s release from prison and conviction on unjust charges, we are reminded of the many other journalists who are still behind bars for doing nothing more than truthfully documenting the continuing story of a changing world.” 

Richardson said he discussed Fenster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face negotiations with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s ruler.

Richardson is best known for traveling to nations with which Washington has poor, if any, relations — such as North Korea — to obtain the freedom of detained Americans. Recently he has been involved in seeking freedom for U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela.

He also has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of the U.S. Congress he met Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest ordered by a previous military government.

In an interview with the Associated Press after his most recent visit to Myanmar, Richardson said his talks there had focused on facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country, particularly the provision of COVID-19 vaccines. That mission also resulted in the release from jail of Aye Moe, a young woman who used to work for Richardson’s center on women’s empowerment issues.

In this photo provided by the Myanmar Military True News Information Team, released American journalist Danny Fester is seated between two police officers at the Naypyitaw International Airport Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Fenster, who was sentenced to 11 years of hard labor after spending nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, has been freed.

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Fenster “never should have been jailed or sentenced on bogus charges in the first place.”

“Myanmar’s military regime must stop using journalists as pawns in their cynical games and release all the other reporters still languishing behind bars on spurious charges,” Crispin added.

During Fenster’s trial, prosecution witnesses testified that they were informed by a letter from the Information Ministry that its records showed that Fenster continued to be employed this year by the online news site Myanmar Now — one of dozens of outlets ordered shut in the press crackdown.

Both his former and current employers issued public statements that Fenster had left Myanmar Now last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar. But without a government official’s testimony to that effect, the judge only took into account the letter from the Information Ministry.

Detroit News Staff Writers Hayley Harding, Francis X. Donnelly and Riley Beggin and the Associated Press contributed.