DETROIT — Hours after landing back in the United States, Michigan journalist Danny Fenster on Tuesday stood alongside leaders who aided in his release from a Myanmar prison.
In exchange for nothing, former Gov. Bill Richardson was able to negotiate Fenster's release with the Myanmar commander in chief in four meetings, Richardson said during a press briefing in New York on Tuesday. Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was sentenced to 11 years of hard labor Friday.
"I just have so much gratitude right now for everything everyone's done," Fenster said Tuesday. "I think every action everyone's taken has helped a little bit. So I'm gonna take time to celebrate and spend time with my family."
Fenster of Huntington Woods was convicted of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations, and violating visa regulations.
"This is Danny's day," Richardson said. "What happened here is a team effort."
Richardson visited the southeast Asia country at the beginning of the month to further humanitarian aid and coronavirus vaccination efforts and was able to negotiate Fenster's release in a series of meetings with Myanmar's leader.
"I said to him, this would be a gift, a humanitarian gesture to the American people," Richardson said, adding that he was also able to free his own staff member, a 31-year-old Burmese woman. "This was the right thing to do. This was a journalist doing his job. This was a journalist reporting of what was happening and he shouldn't suffer."
Richardson and Fenster emphasized that the release was a collaborative effort. Standing alongside them were leaders from the Richardson Center, the Committee to Protect Journalists, former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume, and U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich.
"I'm just so grateful to Governor Richardson and everybody who had a hand in this and I so appreciate the idea of keeping our eyes on the prize about bringing others home," Levin said.
Fenster was held in Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, located in southeast Asia, since his arrest at Yangon International Airport on May 24. With Richardson, Fenster flew out of Myanmar to Qatar on Monday. He is one of more than 100 journalists, media officials or publishers who have been detained since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.
At the briefing Tuesday, Fenster detailed his days in the prison. He spent his days reading and exercising, waiting for nightfall when he could go back to sleep.
"I came in there at first with an attitude that I'm not going to be here very long, and I'm going to stand my ground," he said. "It didn't take too long to figure out that I didn't have a whole lot of ground to stand on."
Richardson, who serves as an unofficial envoy with no ties to any government, and other leaders present Tuesday said that while Fenster's release is cause for celebration, there is still work to be done for U.S. prisoners worldwide.
"As delighted and relieved as we are to have Danny home, dozens of journalists remain in prison in Myanmar among the thousands of political prisoners," said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect. "Not long ago, despite the enormous challenges, Myanmar was a hopeful place for media freedom, and there was a thriving and diverse media scene of which Danny was apart. Today, Myanmar is among the worst jailers of journalists in the world."
Fenster echoed the call for continued efforts to release political prisoners of all backgrounds, not just journalists, across the globe.
"This will be a short little celebration, but let's let's keep focused on what the actual story is here."
Also at the briefing were Fenster's family members, including his brother, Bryan, who spearheaded the campaign to raise awareness of Danny's detention and demand for his release.
"Diplomacy is about showing up. It is about human interaction, about personal relationships, especially with people you disagree with," said Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center. "Showing up in person takes courage and it is not simple, it's complicated. It has conflicting value in everyday and every moment that we do this. And showing up doesn't mean necessarily that you're successful — sometimes it works, sometimes it fails.
"Today it worked."