A military court in Myanmar has sentenced American journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison, his lawyer said on Friday.
Fenster, a 37-year-old from Detroit, Michigan, has been detained in Myanmar for more than five months. He has been denied bail and held in Insein Prison, in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, since his May 24 arrest.
At a court hearing on Friday, his lawyer Than Zaw Aung said Fenster was found guilty of three charges brought against him by the Myanmar military, which seized control of the country in a coup on February 1.
Those charges include visa breaches, unlawful association with an illegal group and incitement under section 505a of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” Fenster was also given a fine in local currency equivalent to $50.
The trial was conducted in a military court inside Insein Prison with proceedings closed to the public.
Fenster is one of about 126 journalists or media workers detained since the coup, according to the UN. About 47 remain behind bars.
Earlier this week he was hit with two new criminal charges under the country’s sedition and terrorism laws, which carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, his lawyer said.
They include charges under Section 124a of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which mandates seven to 20 years imprisonment for attempting to bring hatred, contempt or disaffection toward the government and military.
The other charge is under Section 50a of the Counter Terrorism Law, which makes it a crime to have contact with officially designated “terrorist” groups. Under the terrorism charge, Fenster could face a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life in prison if convicted, according to his lawyer and Myanmar’s sentencing guidelines.
These charges will be heard separately.
It was unclear why the charges have been brought against the former managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent news outlet that covered current affairs, business and politics in Myanmar. Fenster was arrested at Yangon International Airport while trying to leave the country to see his family in the United States.
CNN Business has reached out to Myanmar’s military for comment.
‘Travesty of justice’
Frontier Myanmar said in a statement posted on Facebook it was “deeply disappointed” at the sentencing.
“Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated at this decision. We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family,” said Thomas Keen, Frontier’s Editor-in-Chief.
Frontier Myanmar said the charges were based on the allegation that Fenster was working for banned media outlet Myanmar Now in the aftermath of the military coup. But Frontier said Fenster had resigned from Myanmar Now in July 2020, and at the time of his arrest in May 2021 had been working with Frontier for more than nine months.
Fenster received a three-year sentence for the incitement charge, three years for the unlawful association charge and five years for the immigration charge, Frontier said, adding the sentences imposed were the harshest possible under the law.
“There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges. His legal team clearly demonstrated to the court that he had resigned from Myanmar Now and was working for Frontier from the middle of last year,” said Kean.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the sentence was a “travesty of justice executed by a kangaroo court operating at the beck and call of the Myanmar military junta.”
“The rationale for this outrageous, rights abusing sentence is really twofold: To intimidate all remaining journalists inside Myanmar by punishing Fenster this way, while at the same time sending a message to the US that the Tatmadaw generals don’t appreciate being hit with economic sanctions and can bite back with hostage diplomacy,” Robertson said.
“Journalism is not a crime, and it shouldn’t be treated that way — meaning that Danny Fenster and the many Burmese journalists still behind bars should urgently be freed.”
A US State Department spokesperson condemned the sentence, saying “the ruling today represents an unjust conviction of an innocent person.”
“We are closely monitoring Danny’s situation and will continue to work for his immediate release,” the spokesperson said Friday. “We will do so until Danny returns home safely to his family.”