BANGKOK (AP) — An American journalist jailed in Myanmar for more than five months has been served with two new criminal charges, including one that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, his lawyer said. Denny Fenster is already being tried on three other charges that could give him as many as 11 years in prison if convicted.
One of the new charges comes under the Counter-Terrorism Act, which was amended in August by Myanmar's military-installed government.
His lawyer, Than Zaw Aung, said the section of the act under which he was charged — which holds the accused person directly responsible for acts of terrorism — is punishable by from 10 years to life in prison. The lawyer spoke after Tuesday's session of the court that is trying Fenster on the original three charges.
The military-installed government has said it would apply the law harshly in cases involving opposition organizations it has deemed to be terrorist. Another section of the law, which could be applied to journalists for writing about groups officially deemed “terrorist” organizations, is punishable by a prison term of three to seven years.
The other new charge, under Section 124(A) of the Penal Code, is usually referred to as treason, and carries a penalty of seven to 20 years’ imprisonment.
Myanmar’s military seized power on Feb. 1, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It has repeatedly used lethal force against protesters but has been unable to quell popular resistance to its takeover. More than 1,200 civilians are estimated to have been killed and there have been widespread arrests.
Fenster was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was about to board a flight to go to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family. He is the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, an online news magazine based in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.
Fenster has already been charged with incitement for allegedly spreading false or inflammatory information, an offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
He was also charged with violating the Unlawful Associations Act for contacting opposition groups that were declared illegal by the military-installed government. The offense carries a penalty of two to three years’ imprisonment.
A charge of violating visa conditions added earlier this month is punishable by six months to five years’ imprisonment.
Fenster’s trial is closed to the press and the public, and details have been relayed only by his lawyer. It remains unclear what exactly he is accused of doing, despite testimony by several prosecution witnesses.
The judge in the case ruled Monday that the prosecution had provided enough evidence for the trial to continue.
So far, the prosecution appears to be trying to link Fenster to a not-yet-specified offense allegedly carried out by his former employer. Recent prosecution witnesses said the Information Ministry had records that Fenster was still working for the online news service Myanmar Now when he was arrested. But according to Myanmar Now and his current employer, Frontier Myanmar, he quit the former job in July last year and joined the latter company a month after that.
Fenster’s lawyer, Than Zaw Aung, said Tuesday he has submitted documents and other evidence to the court to prove Fenster is a staff member of Frontier Myanmar. He said Fenster, an employee of Frontier Myanmar and two other defense witnesses testified Tuesday.
Fenster’s initial three cases are being heard at a different Yangon court from where the new charges have been filed.
Major opposition groups, such as the National Unity Government, which considers itself the country’s legitimate administrative body, in May were declared “terrorist” organizations by the government. They had earlier been declared illegal organizations, which suggests that the charges against Fenster under the Unlawful Associations Act and the Counter-Terrorism Act cover the same alleged offense.
This story has been corrected to say that the lawyer said Fenster was charged under a section of the Counter-Terrorism Act that is punishable by 10 years to life in prison, not another section with a penalty of 3 to 7 years.
Grant Peck, The Associated Press