Jailed American journalist freed from Myanmar arrives in New York

Associated Press/Seth Wenig

American journalist Danny Fenster arrived in New York early Tuesday morning, hours after an international consortium helped secure his release from imprisonment in Myanmar, where he was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Fenster appeared in good spirits at a press conference held at John F. Kennedy International Airport, standing alongside former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations credited with being the lynchpin in securing the journalist’s release from jail. 

“I’m incredibly grateful to [have] seen Bill and his team there, out on the tarmac waiting for me, and it’s just the greatest, greatest feeling I can ever remember having,” Fenster said.

He was granted release in Myanmar on Monday in what Richardson described as a decree from the country’s ruling military junta for amnesty and a “humanitarian gesture to the American people.”

The charges against Fenster were never fully clear after he was arrested six months earlier in what was criticized as a crackdown on the media by the ruling military junta. Last week, Fenster was sentenced to 11 years of hard military labor.

His release on Monday was secured through an intensive and sustained campaign carried out by the U.S.; a wide array of international governments in Europe, the Middle East and Asia; and more individual diplomatic efforts from private citizens, like Richardson. 

The former governor heads the Richardson Center, which is deeply involved in serving as an interlocutor for hostage affairs and advocating humanitarian efforts in countries where the U.S. government or international community is limited due to sanctions.

Richardson said Fenster’s release occurred within a short time frame on Monday but built upon two weeks of direct discussions over humanitarian concerns and assistance with the country’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing — who is isolated from the international community after taking over the country in a military coup in February. 

“We were in Myanmar for eight hours to get Danny — eight hours, in and out. And it took a last meeting with … the military leader, to get a decree where Danny was given an amnesty and we brought him home,” Richardson said. 

He added that Fenster’s release was not secured with the promise of any other deliverables. 

“They didn’t ask me for anything. I couldn’t deliver anything anyway,” Richardson said.

Fenster said that he had no idea he would be released on the day that security officials told him to leave his cell, his only instructions to pack a few belongings and that the “dress code was going to be casual.”

He said he was shuffled into a car, with his hands and legs shackled and told not to ask questions. He was driven past the airport and taken to a neighboring city where he said he was then seated for hours before someone told him he was freed.

“I was just sitting in a chair, staring at an empty chair across from me, and several hours later, a police officer sat down and said, ‘you’ve been charged with these crimes and found guilty. We’re going to offer you this pardon, and you’re going to leave right now,’” Fenster said. 

Richardson’s efforts complimented other intensive diplomatic efforts to secure Fenster’s release, including by the U.S. government; the Committee to Protect Journalists; Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who represents the district where Fenster’s family lives; and the governments of Japan, Singapore, Thailand, China, Israel, Sri Lanka and India; and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — the 10-member group of countries that includes Myanmar. 

The government of Qatar was also highlighted as a key interlocutor in helping secure Fenster’s freedom. Fenster was flown from Myanmar to Doha before he arrived in New York.

Roger Carstens, the special envoy for hostage affairs, said during the press conference that Fenster’s family deserved credit for securing the journalist’s release and that it could serve as a blueprint for negotiations to free other hostages. 

“The things that you did to elevate Danny’s case, that’s the kind of thing that other families need to learn from, and we want to make sure we propagate those lessons learned,” he said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed Fenster’s release but took the opportunity to highlight that dozens of journalists remain jailed in Myanmar along with thousands of other political prisoners, saying they are continuing to push for the release of those wrongfully imprisoned.

Fenster also reiterated the call to release imprisoned journalists and said he will take time to be with his family and appreciate his freedom, but that his mission is to raise the issue of hostages abroad. 

“This will be a short little celebration, but you know, let’s keep focused on what the actual story is here,” he said.

Fenster offered tongue-in-cheek that he believes he’s still employed with the news outlet he was working for at the time of his arrest, Frontier Myanmar, and that his exit from the country was so quick he has been unable to check in with his former colleagues.

“I need to go to a store and buy a SIM card and get in touch with some people.”

— This story was updated at 12:32 p.m. to correct the number of journalists held in Myanmar.

Tags Andy Levin Danny Fenster journalists Myanmar

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