In an abrupt reversal of fortune, metro Detroit native Danny Fenster, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison with hard labor in Myanmar on Friday, was set free on Monday.
According to a statement from his family, Fenster is now on his way back to Huntington Woods, where his family lives.
"We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home — we cannot wait to hold him in our arms," the statement reads. "We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months."
Fenster's release was reportedly arranged by former U.S. ambassador and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who The New York Times reports has "a long record of winning the release of American prisoners from autocratic countries." According to the Times, Richardson had met with Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing earlier this month and is now flying to the U.S. with Fenster.
"This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work," Richardson told the paper. "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."
According to the statement, the family requested privacy. Fenster, 37, had been detained since May 24, when he tried to board a plane to surprise his family and get vaccinated for COVID-19.
It's not clear how Richardson, a former diplomat, negotiated Fenster's release. In a separate interview with The New York Times, Richardson said his talks with Myanmar officials focused on humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines and not the release of Fenster.
The charges against Fenster were never clear as well.
Myanmar's military took over the country in February in a coup that turned bloody, and began detaining journalists and shutting down media outlets it deemed "illegal." Fenster's sentence included allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting an organization deemed "illegal" by the military, and violating visa regulations. He also faced additional charges for "treason" and "terrorism," the latter of which could have resulted in up to life in prison.
His family previously told Metro Times that Fenster was initially excited to put his skills as a journalist to use amid the coup.
"When it first started, the streets were packed with protests, and it was civil," his brother Bryan said. "And then after a month, that's when things really started getting bad. ... He would say things like, 'You may not hear me for a few days because they're shutting the internet down.'"
Eventually, journalists started fleeing the country, and Fenster indicated that he wanted to leave.
"Toward the last couple of weeks, Danny told me he wanted to come home, because I'm sure he was sensing this," Bryan said.
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, whose district includes Huntington Woods and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation called Fenster's release "probably the happiest moment of my time in Congress."
"I'd like to thank Governor Bill Richardson; our incredible diplomats in Burma, Ambassador Tom Vajda; Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Ambassador Roger Carstens and his small but mighty team; the State Department; and especially Danny's family: his parents Buddy and Rose, and his brother Bryan; his extended family who became an intelligence and communications whirlwind; and the uncountable people in Michigan and beyond who spoke to me and told the world every single day that Danny was innocent and must be released," he said. "At last, we are bringing Danny home!"
Frontier Myanmar also released a statement on Twitter.
"We are relieved that Danny is finally out of prison — somewhere he never should have been in the first place," Kean said. "The Frontier team would like to thank all who worked to secure Danny’s release over the past five-and-a-half months."
He added, "But we also [recognize] Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup. We call on the military regime to release all of the journalists who remain behind bars in Myanmar."
Fenster is expected to return to the U.S. on Tuesday.
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