Myanmar’s junta has charged a US journalist detained since May with sedition and terrorism, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The military has squeezed the press since taking power in a February coup, arresting dozens of journalists critical of its crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 1,200 people, according to a local monitoring group.
Danny Fenster, who had been working for local outlet Frontier Myanmar for around a year, was arrested as he was heading home to see his family in May and has been held in Yangon’s Insein prison since.
The 37-year-old is already on trial for allegedly encouraging dissent against the military, unlawful association and breaching immigration law.
The additional charges under Myanmar’s anti-terror and sedition laws open Fenster up to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The trial is scheduled to begin on 16 November.
“He has become quite thin,” Fenster’s lawyer Than Zaw Aung said on Wednesday.
Fenster was “disappointed” at being hit with the new charges, which were filed on Tuesday, the lawyer added.
The United States urged Myanmar’s junta to immediately free Fenster.
“The profoundly unjust nature of Danny’s detention is plain for all the world to see,” a state department spokesperson told AFP.
“The regime should take the prudent step of releasing him now. His continued detention is unacceptable. Journalism is not a crime.”
The new charges come days after former US diplomat and hostage negotiator Bill Richardson met the junta chief, Min Aung Hlaing, in the capital Naypyidaw, handing the increasingly isolated junta some rare publicity.
Richardson has previously negotiated the release of prisoners and US servicemen in North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and Sudan and has recently sought to free US-affiliated inmates in Venezuela.
“Danny’s case has become emblematic of the utter contempt Myanmar’s military has for independent media,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research, said in a statement.
Fenster is believed to have contracted Covid-19 during his detention, family members said during a conference call with American journalists in August.
He last spoke with US consular officials by phone on 31 October.
Myanmar has been mired in chaos since the military ousted the elected government, with the junta trying to crush widespread democracy protests and stamp out dissent.
The military has tightened control over the flow of information, throttling internet access and revoking the licences of local media outlets.
More than 100 journalists have been arrested since the putsch, according to Reporting Asean, a monitoring group. 31 are still in detention.
The coup snuffed out the country’s short-lived experiment with democracy, with the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi now facing a raft of charges that could see her jailed for decades.