By GRANT PECK and DAVID RISING
BANGKOK (AP) — American journalist Danny Fenster, sentenced only days ago to 11 years hard labor in Myanmar, has been freed and is on his way home, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson said Monday.
Richardson said in a statement that Fenster had been handed over to him in Myanmar and would return to the U.S. via Qatar over the next day and a half.
“This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work,” Richardson said in a statement emailed from his office. “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 said he negotiated Fenster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face meetings with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military ruler.
Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations.
Fenster’s sentence was the harshest punishment yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since Myanmar’s military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the decision, saying in a statement that it was “an unjust conviction of an innocent person.”
Frontier Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean welcomed the news of Fenster’s release, while calling for the country’s military rulers to release all journalists still behind bars.
“Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup,” he said.
According to the United Nations, at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers have been detained by the military since February and 47 remain in detention, including 20 charged with crimes.
Of the seven journalists known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals and four were released in a mass amnesty on Oct. 21.
Richardson, who also served as governor of New Mexico and secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, has a record of acting as a sort of freelance diplomat.
He 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, another country with which Washington has strained ties.
Richardson has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of U.S. Congress he met Suu Kyi at her home, where she had been under house arrest since 1989 under a previous military government.
He last visited Myanmar in 2018 to advise on the crisis involving the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military in 2017 launched a brutal crackdown.
In an interview with The Associated Press after his most recent visit to Myanmar, Richardson had said his talks there had focused on facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country, particularly the provision of COVID-19 vaccines,
He said his staff had been in touch with Fenster’s family, and when asked if there was hope for Danny Fenster’s release, he replied: “There’s always hope. Don’t ask any more.”
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.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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