By Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk
(Reuters) – Journalist Danny Fenster had an emotional reunion with his family on his return to the United States on Tuesday after more than five months in a Myanmar prison cell, and he pledged to keep working for others still detained in the country.
Fenster, 37, still wearing a red wool hat he said was given to him by a fellow inmate, said at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport that he felt “incredible” after being freed on Monday despite an 11-year prison sentence handed down just three days earlier.
“It’s about this right here,” he said as he hugged and posed with his family including father Buddy, mother Rose, and brother Bryan, who hail from a suburb of Detroit.
Fenster was accompanied by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who flew to Myanmar on Monday to collect Fenster after talks over humanitarian aid and COVID-19 vaccines with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, which Richardson said helped secure Fenster’s release.
At a news conference, Fenster thanked those who campaigned for his release, and said he wanted to keep the spotlight on those still in detention in Myanmar, including at least 47 other journalists, according to the United Nations.
“I’m going to take time to celebrate and to spend time with my family and then, you know, continue concentrating on all the other… journalists and prisoners of conscience,” Fenster said.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group, says 10,143 people have been arrested since the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar, including many ordinary Burmese who have joined protests against the military.
“This will be a short little celebration but, you know, let’s keep focused on what the actual story is here,” Fenster added.
Fenster, in high spirits, said he kept positive in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison by reading and by jogging in a small circle in a prison courtyard. He joked that he had yet to speak to his employer, the magazine Frontier Myanmar, to check if he still worked there.
Richardson, who traveled to Myanmar as a private citizen, said he met four times with the junta chief and made progress on getting humanitarian aid and vaccines into Myanmar, where the coup derailed plans for COVID-19 vaccine deliveries.
“I think those discussions led to a little bit of understanding on the case of Danny,” Richardson said.
The trips drew criticism that the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was giving legitimacy to the junta, which opponents say is not the legitimate government of Myanmar.
“You know what… (Myanmar) government officials asked me for in exchange for Danny? Nothing. They didn’t ask me for anything. I couldn’t deliver anything anyway,” he said, turning to Fenster sitting beside him: “But here he is.”
Since seizing power from an elected government, Myanmar’s ruling generals have arrested leading politicians and cracked down on protests and dissent. About 1,260 people have been killed in violence, most shot by security forces.
The junta said it acted because its complaints of fraud by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which won an election last year in a landslide, were being ignored by the election commission. The NLD says it won fairly, and the coup and the crackdown have drawn widespread international condemnation.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Editing by Angus MacSwan)