American journalist Danny Fenster said he was healthy and happy to be heading home after being freed from prison in Myanmar and flying to Qatar on Monday, following negotiations between former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson and the ruling military junta.
Fenster, 37, the managing editor of independent online magazine Frontier Myanmar, looked frail on arrival at Hamad International Airport in Doha but said he had not been beaten while in captivity.
“I feel great and am really happy to be on my way home. I’m incredibly happy for everything Bill has done,” he told reporters on the tarmac, referring to Richardson’s intervention.
“You just go a little stir crazy and the longer it drags on the more worried you are that it’s just never going to end. That was the biggest concern, staying sane through that.”
Asked if he had been mistreated, he said: “I was arrested and held in captivity for no reason, so I suppose so. But physically, I was healthy. I wasn’t starved or beaten.”
Fenster was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Friday for incitement and violations of laws on immigration and unlawful assembly, a ruling that drew international condemnation.
He flew out of Myanmar with Richardson, who stood beside Fenster after they arrived in Doha.
“I think what made the difference [in negotiations to secure Fenster’s release] was my efforts to work with the government of Myanmar on humanitarian assistance, on vaccines and that made the difference,” Richardson said.
He thanked Qatar’s government for supporting efforts to “secure the release of hostages, American and non-American.”
Fenster was among dozens of media workers detained in Myanmar since a Feb. 1 coup that led to an outpouring of public anger over the military’s abrupt end to a decade of tentative steps towards democracy.
Fenster said efforts to secure other journalists’ release would continue.
“We’re going to keep the focus on them as much as possible and do everything we can to lobby on their behalf. We’re still trying really hard to get them out of there,” he said.
According to rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 10,143 people have been arrested since the coup and 1,260 people killed in violence in the country, most of them in a crackdown by security forces on protests and dissent.
The military has accused many media outlets of incitement and spreading false information.
Myanmar‘s military-owned Myawaddy TV late on Monday announced Fenster had been granted an amnesty after his conviction, saying it was due to requests from Richardson and also two Japanese representatives “to maintain the friendship between the countries and to emphasize humanitarian grounds”.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended U.S. officials as well as Richardson for facilitating Fenster’s release.
“We are glad that Danny will soon be reunited with his family as we continue to call for the release of others who remain unjustly imprisoned,” he said in a statement.
A source familiar with Richardson’s trip said State Department officials at first objected to the initial visit to Myanmar, delaying the trip for two months, and advised Richardson not to raise the case with the junta.
The source said the trip to pick up Fenster was arranged without the knowledge of the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Yangon, who were only informed he would be released on Sunday night.
A State Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Before his release, some State Department officials expected Fenster to be pardoned and worried that Richardson raising the case could in fact delay his release by leading the junta to see the American as an asset to try to extract concessions.
(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, writing by Martin Petty and Timothy Heritage, editing by Kay Johnson, Angus McSwan and Philippa Fletcher)
Copyright 2021 Thomson/Reuters