BANGKOK – A court in armed forces in Myanmar on Friday sentenced detained U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison after finding him guilty on several charges, including incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information.
Fenster, the executive editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was also found guilty of contact with illegal organizations and violation of visa regulations, said lawyer Than Zaw Aung. He was sentenced to the maximum term on each charge.
Fenster has been under arrest since May. He is still facing two additional charges in a different court for allegedly violating the anti-terrorism law and statute of treason and insurrection.
“Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated by this decision. We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family,” editor-in-chief Thomas Kean said in a statement after the trial.
Fenster was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24 when he was about to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.
He is the only foreign journalist to be convicted of a serious crime since the army took power in February, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military-installed government has severely attacked press freedom, closing almost all critical outlets and arresting about 100 journalists, about 30 of whom remain in prison. Some of the closed stores continued to operate without a license, publishing online while their staff members avoid arrest.
The takeover of the army was met with widespread peaceful protests that were subdued with lethal force. The Assistant Association for Political Prisoners detailed the deaths of more than 1,200 civilians, in addition to about 10,000 arrests. Armed resistance has since spread, and UN experts and other observers fear the incipient uprising could slip into civil war.
Despite testimony from more than a dozen prosecution witnesses, it was never clear what Fenster reportedly did. Much of the prosecution’s case apparently depends on his employment with one of the media outlets, Myanmar Now, which was ordered closed this year. But Fenster left his job at Myanmar Now in July last year, joining Frontier Myanmar the following month.
“The court ignored a significant amount of evidence of his employment at Frontier, including taxes and social security records and a certificate from a Frontier employee,” the Frontier Myanmar statement said.
“There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these allegations. His legal team has clearly proved to the court that he resigned from Myanmar Now and worked for Frontier from the middle of last year, ”it quoted Kean as saying.
Fenster’s next challenge is the two additional charges his lawyer said Monday were filed in a different court in Yangon.
Than Zaw Aung said on Monday that one of the new charges is under a section of the Counterterrorism Act, which is punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment. The military-installed government has said it applies the law severely in cases involving opposition organizations it deems to be “terrorists”. Engagement may include contacting such groups, or reporting their statements.
The other charge is under the penal code and is usually referred to as treason or rebellion. It carries a sentence of seven to 20 years in prison.
The hearings on the original three charges were held in court at Yangon’s Insein Prison, where Fenster is incarcerated. They were closed to the press and public. Reports of the proceedings came from Fenster’s lawyer.
The U.S. government, press freedom associations and Fenster’s family have been pushing hard for the release of the 37-year-old journalist.
“We remain deeply concerned about the continued arrest of Danny Fenster. He was working as a journalist in Burma when he was arrested,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, last week, referring to Myanmar’s name before it was changed in 1989 by previous military government.
“His arrest, the arrest of so many others is a sad reminder of the continuing human rights, humanitarian crisis facing the country of Burma, facing the Burmese, but also facing foreign nationals, including Americans who happen to be in Burma,” Price said. . “The deeply unjust nature of Danny’s arrest is visible to the whole world and these allegations only draw attention to that. Again, the regime should take the prudent step to release him now. “