BANGKOK – US journalist Danny Finster, who spent nearly six months in prison in military-ruled Myanmar and was sentenced last week to 11 years hard labor, was released on Monday and began his journey home.
Finster was handed over to former US diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release, and the two landed in Doha, Qatar.
“I feel fine physically,” bearded Finster, who was wearing baggy drawstring pants and a knit hat, told reporters on the tarmac. It’s just the same deprivations and things that come with any form of confinement. You just go a little crazy. And the longer it goes on, the more worried you are that it will never end. So that was the biggest concern, just staying sane through it.”
While incarcerated, Finster told his lawyer that he believed he had COVID-19, although prison authorities denied this.
Finster, managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted on Friday of publishing false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations. Days before his conviction, he learned he was accused of additional violations of the Terror and Treason laws, putting him at risk of a life sentence.
He is one of more than 100 journalists, media officials or publishers arrested since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February, with the most severe punishment yet.
“This is the day you hope will come when you do this work,” Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and former ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement emailed from his office. “We are so grateful that Danny will finally be able to reconnect with his loved ones, who have been defending him all this time, despite the tremendous odds.”
Finster has been detained since his arrest at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was on his way to the Detroit area to see his family.
“We are thrilled to have Danny released on his way home – we can’t wait to have him in our arms,” his family said in a statement. “We are very grateful to all the people who helped secure his release, in particular Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who expressed their support and stood by us as we endured these long and difficult months.”
The exact allegations against Finster have never been clear, but much of the prosecution’s case appears to hinge on proof that he was working for another online news site that was ordered shut down this year during a crackdown on the media after the military takeover. Finster used to work on the site but left that position last year.
Finster, a native of Detroit, holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Wayne State University and worked for a newspaper in Louisiana before moving to Southeast Asia, according to Deadline Detroit, a news site to which he occasionally contributes. .
His brother, Brian Finster, said he had “a passion for writing about people who struggle and struggle for social justice” and was particularly interested in the plight of people from the Rohingya Muslim minority, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled Myanmar during the brutal counter-insurgency campaign. Army campaign 2017.
Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of Frontier Myanmar, said Finster was “one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup”.
According to the United Nations, the army has detained at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers since the army’s takeover, and 47 are still being held, but not all have been charged.
In a statement broadcast on state television, the military said Finster was released at the request of Richardson and the president of the Japan-Myanmar Friendship Association. Japan, unlike the United States and the European Union, does not take an openly confrontational stance with the military government, and would like to see improved relations between Myanmar and the West.
US Representative Andy Levine of Michigan, who represents the Finster family in Congress, told Detroit radio station WWJ that generals in Myanmar “were convinced it wasn’t worth holding on to Danny.” He was innocent, and he was just a nuisance to them. If they kept him and anything that really happened to him, we’ll never forget him. We will never forgive them.”
Richardson said he discussed Finster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he had face-to-face negotiations with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s governor.
Richardson is known for traveling to countries with which Washington has poor relations, if any, such as North Korea – to obtain the freedom of detained Americans.
He also has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, beginning in 1994, when he met Suu Kyi as a congressman at her home, where she was under house arrest by order of a former military government.
Sean Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for CPJ, said Finster “shouldn’t have been imprisoned or sentenced on bogus charges in the first place.”
“The Myanmar military regime must stop using journalists as pawns in their satirical games, and release all other reporters who remain behind bars on trumped-up charges,” Crispin added.