Danny Fenster arrives in N.Y.; Richardson persuaded Myanmar leader on release

Riley Beggin and James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Metro Detroit journalist Danny Fenster returned to the United States on Tuesday, a day after he was freed from nearly six months of imprisonment in military-ruled Myanmar with the help of former United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson.

At a press conference at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Fenster described his experience spending more than five months in jail, thanked those who helped secure his release and expressed his commitment to helping others wrongfully imprisoned around the world. 

"I'm going to take time to celebrate and spend time with my family. And then continue concentrating on all the other — not just journalists and prisoners of conscience in Myanmar and everywhere else — (but) a lot of citizens, doctors, teachers that are in prison right now," he said. "This will be a short little celebration, but let's keep focused on what the actual story is here."

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. Late last week, he was sentenced to spend 11 years in prison with hard labor, despite calls by the United States and rights groups for his release. 

He said he remained physically unharmed while he was imprisoned and that his days mostly consisted of reading, exercising and sleeping. The day he was freed, he was taken from the prison in Yangon to Naypyidaw, seated in a room with an empty chair across from him and left for hours without information before abruptly being told he would be released.

Richardson, a former diplomat and New Mexico ex-governor who helped negotiate Fenster's release as a private citizen, said he did so over four meetings — two virtual, two in-person — over the last two weeks with Min Aung Hlaing, the country's military leader. He didn't indicate who asked him to get involved.

"I said to him, 'This would be a gift, a humanitarian gesture to the American people. This was the right thing to do, this was a journalist doing his job. This was a journalist reporting what was happening, and he shouldn't suffer,'" Richardson said. 

Danny Fenster, center, hugs his mother, Rose, as former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson looks on at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

He thanked Fenster's family; the Committee to Protect Journalists; Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township; the U.S. State Department, and others for supporting the mission. But he said he "took a little heat" for meeting with Min Aung Hlaing over fears he would legitimize his authority. 

"I believe we have to engage our adversaries, no matter how different our philosophies are," Richardson said, later adding that "a big part of our effort with hostages around the world is this personal fringe diplomacy."

The Sante Fe, New Mexico-based Richardson Center for Global Engagement specializes in this type of diplomacy. 

Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, said there is "a whole ecosystem" of people who came together to get Fenster released and support his family throughout the process.

"Sometimes it takes an unconventional approach and it can't be the government," Carstens said. "So to the governor, I want to say a huge thanks for getting this win."

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.

Fenster was greeted and hugged by his family Tuesday morning at the airport in New York, according to a video posted by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Fenster's family led a campaign for months advocating for his release. 

"All those months when you were sitting in that damn prison having no way of knowing, I wondered what you could possibly think," said Levin, who represents the Fenster family in Congress. He lauded the Fenster family's relentless work to free him.

"Day after day, week after week, month after month. So this is just a beautiful day."

How community is responding

Back in Huntington Woods on Tuesday, the Fenster family home had a display that blared out Fenster's good news. 

“WELCOME HOME DANNY” read a front-yard display, adorned with cut-out hearts and stars. Up near the front door is a “Free Fenster” yard sign, a popular sight throughout the neighborhood. 

One of those yard signs is also displayed by across-the-street neighbor Keith Ramundo, 68. As the news had gone from bad to worse for Fenster, Ramundo said he'd lost faith in a good outcome. 

“I thought he was just gonna be incarcerated, and we were just gonna forget about it, as we've done, as America's done with so many other people that have been victims of this type of captivity,” Ramundo said Tuesday. 

“It’s a great day for the Fensters, obviously. It’s a great day for Danny. And it’s a great day for America,” he added. 

Felicia Goldberg, 23, a lifelong Huntington Woods resident who recently moved to neighboring Oak Park, described the town of about 6,200 as a place where "everyone knows everyone."

Fenster’s plight, Goldberg said Tuesday while walking a friend's dog on Fenster's block, has been a regular topic of conversation in the Goldberg home. When she saw on Facebook that Fenster had been released, Goldberg said she sent it immediately to her mother, an immigration lawyer.

“Everyone was just relieved more than anything,” she said.

Paul Barnaba, 52, a neighborhood resident of three years, said he's felt sad for the family and said the 11-year sentence had been a "gut check."

“But then, yesterday morning, to learn that he was released? It was absolutely miraculous,” Barnaba said. “This will probably be the best Thanksgiving ever for the Fensters, to have their boy back.”

Focusing on other prisoners

But there is more work to do to free others still incarcerated, officials said at the New York press conference. 

Fenster was once a part of a "thriving and diverse media scene" in Myanmar before the democratic government was toppled in a military coup earlier this year, said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

"As delighted and relieved as we are to have Danny home, dozens of journalists remain in prison in Myanmar among the thousands of political prisoners," Simon said. "I want to take a moment to call for the release of all journalists wrongfully imprisoned in Myanmar."

Levin, too, called for the release of a Michigan family kidnapped and held for ransom in Haiti while working as missionaries. A mother and up to five of her children, members of Hart Dunkard Brethren Church, were captured after leaving an orphanage outside Port-au-Prince in October. 

They were among 17 Christian missionaries abducted in Haiti. The families of those kidnapped are from Amish, Mennonite and other conservative Anabaptist communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ontario, Canada, according to Christian Aid Ministries. The leader of the 400 Mawozo gang has threatened to kill those abducted if his ransom demands for $1 million per person are not met.

After Fenster's release on Monday, he first flew to Qatar, where he told reporters Monday that he was feeling "great" after his release from jail. A few 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.

Metro Detroit native and journalist Danny Fenster, second from left, is greeted by his brother, Bryan, left, his mother, Rose, and his father, Buddy, after arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

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.

rbeggin@detroitnews.com