US journalist Danny Fenster has been sentenced to 11 years in prison with hard labour by a court in military-ruled Myanmar after he was found guilty of breaching immigration law, unlawful association and encouraging dissent against the military.
Fenster, who is the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an independent outlet that has covered the military coup extensively, was arrested in May 2021 at Yangon international airport.
He is one of dozens of local journalists that have been detained since a military coup in February.
Earlier this week, Fenster was slapped with two additional charges of sedition and terrorism, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
His trial on the new charges will begin on November 16.
According to Frontier, Fenster had earlier worked for Myanmar Now, an independent news site that has been critical of the military since the coup.
“The charges were all based on the allegation that he was working for banned media outlet Myanmar Now. Danny had resigned from Myanmar Now in July 2020 and joined Frontier the following month, so at the time of his arrest in May 2021 he had been working with Frontier for more than nine months,” said the news site.
“There is absolutely no basis to convict Danny of these charges.”
His sentencing on Friday comes months after a Japanese freelance journalist was arrested in Myanmar and charged with spreading fake news.
Yuki Kitazumi, who was reporting for many of Japan’s major news outlets, was one of a few foreign reporters in the country. Myanmar authorities maintain he violated the law but released him because Japan had requested it.
The US has pressed the military government to release him, but a military spokesman insisted that Fenster needed to be held in custody.
In a statement before the sentencing, the US state department commented that “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”.
The US has not yet commented on the ruling.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the BBC that the verdict was “a travesty of justice by a kangaroo court” intended to intimidate all remaining journalists working inside Myanmar.
Meanwhile, Richard Horsey, a senior adviser at Crisis Group Myanmar, described the sentence as “outrageous”.
“It sends a message not only to international journalists… but also Myanmar journalists that reporting factually on the situation is liable to get them many many years in prison,” he told the AFP news agency.
He added that US diplomats were working to secure Fenster’s release but noted that “obviously this sentence is a big setback to US efforts.”
Since the February coup, at least 1,178 people have been killed and 7,355 arrested, charged or sentenced in a crackdown on dissent, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Around 80 local journalists are known to have been detained for their reporting so far. According to the AAPP, 50 of them are still in detention and half have been prosecuted. (Source: BBC)