A lawyer for Danny Fenster said Myanmar authorities have provided no explanation for new charges against the American journalist that could see him imprisoned for as much as 30 years.
The ruling military junta leveled the new charges of sedition and terrorism on Tuesday, crushing hopes for an early release of Fenster, who has been in custody since May 24 after being arrested for lesser alleged offenses.
Than Zaw Aung, Fenster’s lawyer, told VOA on Wednesday that he could not explain why the new charges were made, or what the authorities are accusing Fenster of having done.
“Yesterday, we had a two-minute meeting via mobile phone, videoconference, and in that time, the judge didn’t explain the deal (or) why they have charged him with the new cases,” he said.
Fenster, 37, originally from Detroit, Michigan, was already facing as much as 11 years imprisonment on the earlier charges of incitement, unlawful association and visa breaches.
The latest charges were filed under Section 124A of Myanmar’s penal code, which prohibits sedition against the government, and under Section 50A of Myanmar’s counterterrorism law, which criminalizes contact with “terrorist groups.”
Fenster had been working as the managing editor for Yangon-based Frontier Myanmar magazine. He was arrested at Yangon International Airport in May as he boarded a flight to the United States, via Malaysia.
“They (police) thought he was working for Myanmar Now. At the airport arresting time, the police found his Myanmar Now name tag,” Than Zaw Aung told VOA.
Myanmar Now was one of five media outlets that had their licenses revoked by the junta in April.
Fenster worked for the news organization from 2019-20 but ended his position months before the military coup, details which were confirmed by Myanmar Now.
Fenster will be sentenced Nov. 15 but will return to court on November 16 for the first notice regarding his two recent charges. The stress of being in jail is affecting the American, his lawyer says.
“He looks thin physically, and he is mentally down. He is disappointed with the new charges. He recovered from COVID-19, but he (has) long hair and depression.
“Yesterday, he told me he wants to go to the United States for Thanksgiving time,” Than Zaw Aung added.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told VOA on Wednesday that Fenster should be released immediately.
“We are aware that the regime has brought additional charges against Danny. The profoundly unjust nature of Danny’s detention is plain for all the world to see. The regime should take the prudent step of releasing him now. His continued detention is unacceptable. Journalism is not a crime.”
In response to a question asked by a VOA reporter earlier this week, Price said seeing Fenster released is an “absolute priority.”
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has seen most of its modern history governed under military rule.
The military claimed unsubstantiated electoral fraud in the November 2020 elections. On Feb. 1, it removed the democratically elected government; leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were detained and charged.
Anti-coup protests began shortly after, with thousands taking to the streets and refusing to work under military rule. But the military violently cracked down on dissidents, and at least 1,252 people have been killed since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.
More than 100 journalists and media staff have been arrested during the crackdown, according to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring website for news in Asia.
Risky reporting in Myanmar
Reporters in Myanmar have said it’s almost impossible for journalists to cover news without high risks.
Myanmar freelance journalist Cape Diamond, an assumed name he uses to protect his identify, told VOA it’s no longer a shock that journalists like Fenster are facing such charges.
“The journalists in Myanmar have already acknowledged that there's no press freedom in the country. The local journalists are already aware that those charges could come to them anytime,” he added.
Aye Chan Naing, editorial director for Democratic Voice of Burma, a Myanmar broadcaster currently banned by the junta, told VOA in July that being a journalist in Myanmar is a “ticket to get arrested.”
The veteran journalist said the military has a “wish list” of targets.
“It is based on their own wills,” Aye Chan Naing said. “The judges are just following the orders from the military — it’s nothing based on the rule of law. (The charges against Fenster) are more to scare other people and the local journalists to show that even the foreign journalists can go to prison.”
“He hasn’t broken any rules and regulations, it’s pretty clear. There are no rules of law in the country,” he told VOA.
Rights groups call for release
John Quinley, a senior human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, told VOA that his organization has been monitoring those arrested in Myanmar since the coup, and it’s clear journalists like Fenster have been targeted deliberately.
“Danny Fenster should be immediately and unconditionally released from prison along with all other political prisoners detained by the junta,” Quinley said.
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, said he believes the additional charges against Fenster are a wake-up call for further action against the military by the U.S. government.
“They need to do more to reduce the flow of money and arms to the military, including stopping gas revenue,” Farmaner told VOA via email.
Myanmar analyst Aung Thu Nyein said he believes Fenster’s new charges are a “direct threat to press freedom” and that the prospect of heavier sentences is a new scare tactic the military government is using to deter contact with anti-military groups.
But the analyst told VOA he thinks Fenster still could be released.
“Danny could be sentenced for long-term imprisonment by political motivation, but he can be released any time soon, as the regime satisfies some form of diplomatic trade-off in relation with Western power.”
VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report.