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Detained American journalist Danny Fenster faces additional charge under colonial-era law

The military council has added an additional charge of violating Section 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act to the case against detained American journalist Danny Fenster, who has been held in Yangon’s Insein Prison for more than four months. 

Fenster, the 37-year-old managing editor of the Yangon-based Frontier Myanmar, was initially charged with violating Section 505a of the Penal Code for incitement, which is accompanied by a three-year prison sentence if convicted.

Than Zaw Aung, Fenster’s lawyer, said the new charge was announced during a hearing at the Insein Prison court on Monday, but no explanation was provided as to why. It has long been a charge used against activists, journalists and members of ethnic nationalities who are accused of being members of or having an affiliation to an “unlawful association.” It carries a two- to three-year prison term. 

“We’re still not being told the reason behind the charge, only which charge [he is accused of violating].’ The reason will definitely be in the case file, so we will only find out about that when we get to see it,” the lawyer said. 

He added that Fenster was wearing a PPE suit at Monday’s hearing, suggesting he was not in good health, and prompting his legal team to apply for bail. 

“We submitted the bail application yesterday. We will have to testify regarding bail at his court hearing on October 15,” Than Zaw Aung said.

Monday’s court session was Fenster’s tenth. With the exception of four that he was at in person, he had been attending the hearings through online video conferencing due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

While the US state department has requested that the junta release Fenster, military council spokesperson Gen Zaw Min Tun claimed at a September 30 press conference that he was “being held because he needed to be.”

“As for journalists, if they only do journalists’ work, there is no reason to arrest them. Danny Fenster was arrested because he did more than what a journalist does,” Zaw Min Tun said at the press conference in response to a question posed by a VOA reporter.

He added that Fenster was “in good health.”

Fenster was arrested at the Yangon International Airport on May 24 on his way back to the US to visit his family. 

Before joining Frontier Myanmar, Danny Fenster had worked at Myanmar Now’s English site as a copy editor from mid-2019 until July 2020. Myanmar Now has previously stated that Fenster’s sole assignment at the publication was editing news stories that had been translated from Burmese into English and that he had held no other position in the management of the newsroom nor was he affiliated with any type of non-editorial duties. 

The military council has arrested around 100 journalists since Myanmar’s February 1 coup and despite some being released, more than 50 are still imprisoned, according to statistics published on September 16 by Detained Journalists Information, a group of writers and journalists collecting data on the detentions.

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