A court in military-ruled Myanmar on Friday sentenced U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison with hard labor, the maximum penalty under three charges, despite calls by the United States and rights groups for his release.
It was the harshest punishment yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.
Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, is still facing additional terrorism and treason charges under which he could receive up to life in prison.
The court found him guilty on Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations, and violating visa regulations, lawyer Than Zaw Aung said.
Fenster wept after hearing the sentence and has not yet decided whether to appeal, the lawyer said.
The harsh penalty is the ruling military’s latest rebuff of calls from around the world for a peaceful end to Myanmar’s political crisis. The government is refusing to cooperate with an envoy appointed by Southeast Asian governments to mediate a solution, and has not bowed to sanctions imposed by the United States and several other Western countries.
“It’s clear that Danny is being made an example of, and what it shows is that the junta do not care what the international community thinks. They would do as they want, and this is one example of how they are basically showing the international community that they cannot be held accountable,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
The army’s takeover was opposed by widespread peaceful protests that were put down with lethal force. Security forces killed more than 1,200 civilians and arrested about 10,000 others, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Armed resistance has since spread, and U.N. experts and other observers fear the incipient insurgency could slide into civil war.
Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.
The military-installed government has cracked down hard on press freedom, shutting down virtually all critical outlets and arresting about 100 journalists, roughly 30 of whom remain in jail. Of the seven known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals and four were released in a mass amnesty on October 21.
Some of the closed media have continued operating without a license, publishing online as their staff members dodge arrest.
At least three other foreign journalists, from Japan, the United States, and Poland, have been detained. The American, Nathan Maung, said he was tortured while in custody. Polish national Robert Bociagahe experienced no abuse while detained, but was beaten by police during his arrest.
The hearings on the original three charges against Fenster were held at a court in Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison, where he is jailed. They were closed to the media and the public, and accounts of the proceedings have come from Fenster’s lawyer.
Despite testimony from more than a dozen prosecution witnesses, it was never clear exactly what Fenster was alleged to have done, and it appeared that he was judged guilty by association.
Much of the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on his being employed by Myanmar Now, another online news site, that was ordered closed this year. But Fenster left his job at Myanmar Now in July last year, joining Frontier Myanmar the following month.
Prosecution witnesses testified that they were informed by a letter from the Information Ministry that its records showed that Fenster continued to be employed this year by Myanmar Now.
Both Myanmar Now and Frontier Myanmar issued public statements that Fenster had left the former publication last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar.
Than Zaw Aung said he was unable to produce a government official to testify, and the judge took into account only the Information Ministry letter.
“Therefore, according to this letter, Danny is responsible for Myanmar Now and the judge said that’s why Danny was sentenced,” the lawyer said.
He said Fenster told him that the editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now allegedly forgot to inform the Information Ministry of his resignation last year.
The U.S. government, human rights groups, press freedom associations, and Fenster’s family had pressed strongly for the 37-year-old journalist’s release.
“Myanmar must stop jailing journalists for merely doing their job of reporting the news,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.