After 176 days in a Myanmar prison, American journalist Danny Fenster is finally on his way home.
Fenster, 37, was freed on Monday, days after a Yangon court sentenced him to 11 years in prison on charges filed by the junta.
After widespread reports of a possible release, Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun confirmed to VOA Burmese that Fenster was allowed to go home.
The release comes after negotiations between the Myanmar military government and top U.S. officials, including former congressman and ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson.
Photographs showed Fenster with Richardson next to an aircraft, thought to be his flight to the U.S. via Qatar.
"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," a statement from Richardson said.
Fenster's release was secured after Richardson had face-to-face talks with junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar, according to a statement from The Richardson Center, a non-profit corporation that provides logistical support to Richardson.
But local reports say that the military chief had promised to release the American journalist through a request made by Yohei Sasakawa, the Japanese Special Envoy for reconciliation in Myanmar. Sasakawa is currently visiting Myanmar's Rakhine State.
A Myanmar military press release seen by VOA Burmese confirmed that Fenster was pardoned and deported on humanitarian grounds, at the request of American and Japanese officials.
Fenster's brother Bryan welcomed the news on Twitter, saying the family was "overjoyed". "We cannot wait to hold him in our arms," Bryan Fenster tweeted.
An emailed statement from the Fenster family to VOA said that the family "appreciates all the support around the world" but has requested privacy.
Danny Fenster was arrested at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he boarded a flight to the U.S. to see his family in his hometown of Detroit.
At the time, he was working as the managing editor for Yangon-based news site Frontier Myanmar.
The American was held at Insein prison and charged with incitement, unlawful association and visa breaches. Additional charges of sedition and terrorism were later added.
Fenster's lawyer Than Zaw Aung told VOA the junta believed incorrectly that Fenster was still working for the news outlet Myanmar Now.
The news outlet is one of several banned by the military after it seized power in a February 1 coup.
Fenster had sufficient evidence that he had left the company last year, months before the coup, and Myanmar Now confirmed that he no longer worked for the outlet.
But still a court on November 12 sentenced Fenster to 11 years in jail.
Than Zaw Aung said Fenster's appearance had changed throughout his stint in prison, where he had lost weight and his hair had grown longer.
Fenster had recently recovered from COVID-19 but was "mentally down" and had depression. "He told me he wants to go to the United States for Thanksgiving time," the lawyer told VOA last week.
The English-language news site Frontier Myanmar where Fenster works released a statement welcoming his release.
"We are relieved that Danny is finally out of prison – somewhere he never should have been in the first place," said Frontier's editor-in-chief Thomas Kean.
U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken also welcomed Fenster's release from prison, "where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months."
"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 in Burma," Blinken said.
Fenster is the second American journalist to be released from Myanmar since the coup. Nathan Maung was detained for 98 days after police raided the offices of Kamayut Media where he was working, in March.
Speaking to VOA Monday, Maung said, "The junta will release more political detainees if the international community is united to pressure."
In an earlier interview with VOA, shortly after his release, Maung, who is of Burmese descent, said he was beaten denied food and water, and confined to a chair during his interrogation.
At first, Maung said, he resisted telling his interrogators that he was an American, fearing that he would be separated from his colleagues.
"They stopped torturing me once they found out I'm a U.S. citizen," he told VOA. But he said dozens of local journalists faced worse conditions.
A Polish photojournalist Robert Bociaga was also detained for 13 days before his release in March. And Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi spent a month inside jail from April to May before being released.
John Quinley, a senior human rights specialist at the nonprofit Fortify Rights, said that Fenster and others are being wrongly targeted.
"Danny Fenster should never have been detained in the first place. The junta is still jailing journalists, protest leaders and anyone who speaks up for democracy and human rights," he told VOA.
Dozens of journalists still remain inside Myanmar prisons according to Reporting ASEAN. Since February's coup, over 100 journalists have been arrested and at least 31 remain detained.
Rights groups including the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists are pushing for their release.
In a statement on Fenster's release, the CPJ Asia program head Steven Butler said, "Myanmar authorities should follow this gesture with the immediate release of the dozens of other journalists held in prison merely for doing their job of reporting the news."
Aye Chan Naing, the editor of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), previously told VOA that the junta has a "wish list" of targets that includes reporters.
"If they find out they're working as a journalist, they're already taking a pretty high risk and could easily get arrested."
VOA's Burmese Service contributed to this report.