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Myanmar court sentences Detroit-area journalist Fenster to 11 years in prison

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Bangkok — A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday sentenced detained journalist and Metro Detroit native Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison with hard labor, the maximum penalty under three charges, despite calls by the United States and rights groups for his release.

It was the harshest punishment yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.

The U.S. Department of State condemned the sentencing Friday, calling it an "unjust conviction of an innocent person."

"We are closely monitoring Danny's situation and will continue to work for his immediate release," spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "We will do so until Danny returns home safely to his family."

Danny Fenster in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2020. A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, sentenced detained U.S. journalist Fenster to 11 years in prison after finding him guilty on several charges, including incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information.

Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, is still facing additional terrorism and treason charges under which he could receive up to life in prison.

The court found him guilty on Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations, lawyer Than Zaw Aung said.

Fenster wept after hearing the sentence and has not yet decided whether to appeal, the lawyer said.

Anna Epstein, a spokeswoman for the Fenster family, said Friday morning family members are not granting interviews at this time.

“I am devastated by the news of the sentencing of my constituent, journalist Danny Fenster,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, in a statement Friday.

“Despite Danny’s attorney demonstrating evidence to clear him of these charges or any wrongdoing whatsoever, this verdict comes down in a case where there has not been a scintilla of justice.

“Danny now faces even more charges next week," Levin added. "I know it is hard to remain hopeful at this grim moment, but we must and will keep working to #BringDannyHome.” 

Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee with Levin, called the situation an "an egregious miscarriage of justice" by courts that are heavily politically motivated. 

"It's not been geared towards actually finding the truth and having an appropriate judgment, which in my view would clear Danny of any charges, but more towards reinforcing the Tatmadaw and the military regime that seized power — just showing what they're willing to do to an American so that they can further consolidate their own dictatorial control of Burma," Meijer said. 

He said the case is a classic example of intimidation of what little local journalism remains within Myanmar.

"It's hard to delink Danny's case from the broader sanctions issues. That had been the hope. But clearly, the Tatmadaw regime views Danny as a political hostage," Meijer said. 

"This is not the type of action that can go unchallenged by the U.S. government, if we are to retain credibility that if you target our citizens, there will be consequences."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that President Joe Biden's administration was concerned but said direct action "would be under the purview" of the Department of State.

“I will say that, obviously, we are always concerned about the detention of individuals around the world, journalists, dissidents, people who are speaking freely and speaking on behalf of the media, as well,” Psaki said Friday.

The harsh penalty is the ruling military’s latest rebuff of calls from around the world for a peaceful end to Myanmar’s political crisis. The government is refusing to cooperate with an envoy appointed by Southeast Asian governments to mediate a solution and has not bowed to sanctions imposed by the United States and several other Western countries.

“It’s clear that Danny is being made an example of, and what it shows is that the junta do not care what the international community thinks. They would do as they want, and this is one example of how they are basically showing the international community that they cannot be held accountable,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

The army’s takeover was opposed by widespread peaceful protests that were put down with lethal force. Security forces killed more than 1,200 civilians and arrested about 10,000 others, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Armed resistance has since spread, and U.N. experts and other observers fear the incipient insurgency could slide into civil war.

Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to Detroit to see his family in Huntington Woods.

More:Detroit area's imprisoned journalist Danny Fenster ‘a free spirit’

The military-installed government has cracked down hard on press freedom, shutting down virtually all critical outlets and arresting about 100 journalists, roughly 30 of whom remain in jail. Of the seven known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals and four were released in a mass amnesty on Oct. 21.

Some of the closed media have continued operating without a license, publishing online as their staff members dodge arrest.

At least three other foreign journalists, from Japan, the United States and Poland, have been detained. The American, Nathan Maung, said he was tortured while in custody.

The hearings on the original three charges against Fenster were held at a court in Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison, where he is jailed. They were closed to the media and the public, and accounts of the proceedings have come from Fenster’s lawyer.

Buddy, from left, and Rose Fenster, and their son Danny Fenster, an American journalist, pose for a photo in Huntington Woods in 2014. A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, sentenced Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison after finding him guilty on several charges. He faces additional charges that could lead to a sentence of life in prison.

Despite testimony from more than a dozen prosecution witnesses, it was never clear exactly what Fenster was alleged to have done, and it appeared that he was judged guilty by association.

Much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on his being employed by Myanmar Now, another online news site, that was ordered closed this year. But Fenster left his job at Myanmar Now in July last year, joining Frontier Myanmar the following month.

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 Myanmar Now.

Both Myanmar Now and Frontier Myanmar issued public statements that Fenster had left the former publication last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar.

Than Zaw Aung said he was unable to produce a government official to testify, and the judge took into account only the Information Ministry letter.

“Therefore, according to this letter, Danny is responsible for Myanmar Now and the judge said that’s why Danny was sentenced,” the lawyer said.

More:Fenster family says imprisoned journalist 'in good form and unharmed'

He said Fenster told him that the editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now allegedly forgot to inform the Information Ministry of his resignation last year.

The U.S. government, human rights groups, press freedom associations and Fenster’s family had pressed strongly for the 37-year-old journalist’s release.

“Myanmar must stop jailing journalists for merely doing their job of reporting the news,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ryan Fayhee, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and former Department of Justice official, told The Detroit News in an email that the case “appears to be another unfortunate example of hostage diplomacy.“

Fayhee has represented the families of kidnapped Americans, including that of Detroit area former corporate security officer Paul Whelan, who has been in custody in Russia since December 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor after a conviction on espionage charges a year ago. Whelan has vehemently denied wrongdoing. 

“These issues are always extremely complicated, of course, and well-meaning government servants are at the helm — but simply put, if the cases are not effectively triaged, escalated and resolved in early days — be it through strength or diplomacy — they can set an unfortunate precedent that there is value in the unlawful detention or outright kidnapping of American citizens,” Fayee wrote.

“One important step the administration can take is crafting an executive order as part of the implementation of the Robert Levinson Act, which would authorize sanctions as a potentially effective tool to discourage this sort of malign conduct.”

Sen. Gary Peters said in a Twitter post on Friday that he will continue to push for Fenster's release.

"This decision is outrageous and entirely unjustified," the Bloomfield Township Democrat wrote. "The family and loved ones of Danny Fenster have gone through enough hardship and pain. I’ll continue pressing for Danny’s full, unconditional release. It's past time to #BringDannyHome."

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Hayley Harding and the Associated Press contributed.