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Myanmar frees US journalist after negotiations with ex-US diplomat

Fenster was the first Western journalist sentenced to prison in recent years in Myanmar, where the coup against the elected government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has left the country in chaos.

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American journalist Danny Fenster was released from prison on Monday in Myanmar and has left the country, his employer and family said, after negotiations between former US diplomat Bill Richardson and the ruling military junta.

Fenster, 37, the managing editor of independent online magazine Frontier Myanmar, 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.

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Fenster left Myanmar on Monday with Richardson on a flight headed to Qatar. The Richardson Center posted a picture on social media of the two of them together about to board the jet.

“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, who visited Myanmar earlier this month, said in a statement.

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.

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.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken commended US 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.

It was not immediately clear whether there were conditions attached to the release of Fenster, who was arrested while trying to leave the country in May. The US Embassy in Yangon did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the ruling military council did not immediately respond to Reuters request.

Richardson, a former New Mexico governor, US energy secretary and US ambassador to the United Nations, made the surprise Nov. 2 visit to Myanmar in a humanitarian capacity, offering COVID-19 assistance.

Talks with junta chief

He is one of only a few foreigners to have met junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar since he led the coup. The general is among several under sanctions from the United States and Western allies.

His organization said Fenster’s release came after that private visit and “face-to-face negotiations” with Min Aung Hlaing.

Frontier’s editor-in-chief, Thomas Kean, said in a statement: “We are relieved that Danny is finally out of prison – somewhere he never should have been in the first place.”

“But we also recognize Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup.”

Fenster’s brother, Bryan, said the family was overjoyed.

“We cannot wait to hold him in our arms. We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release.”

Fenster was the first Western journalist sentenced to prison in recent years in Myanmar, where the coup against the elected government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has left the country in chaos, with the generals struggling to consolidate power and facing growing international pressure.

Human rights groups condemned the junta over the court’s sentencing, which came days after additional charges of sedition and breaches of a terrorism law.

The junta has made no comment on the case since Friday nor responded to the international criticism, and state media has not reported on it.

Read more: US journalist detained in Myanmar sentenced to 11 years in prison