A Myanmar junta court on Friday sentenced an American journalist to 11 years in prison on charges of unlawful association, incitement against the military and breaching visa rules, his employer and lawyer said -- a ruling slammed by Washington as "unjust".
The military has squeezed the press since taking power in a February coup, arresting dozens of journalists critical of its crackdown on dissent, which 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 in May as he tried to leave the country to see his family.
He was sentenced to 11 years for incitement, unlawful association and breaching visa rules, his lawyer Than Zaw Aung told AFP.
His client had not decided whether he would appeal, he added.
In Washington, a State Department spokesperson called the ruling "an unjust conviction of an innocent person" and said the United States would continue to work for Fenster's "immediate" release.
"Journalism is not a crime. Free and independent media is indispensable to building prosperous, resilient and free societies," the spokesperson said.
A junta spokesman did not respond to AFP's request for comment.
Fenster, who has been held in Yangon's Insein prison since he was detained, also faces charges of sedition and terrorism, which could see him jailed for life.
"Everyone at Frontier is disappointed and frustrated at this decision," Frontier Myanmar said in a statement.
"We just want to see Danny released as soon as possible so he can go home to his family."
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for campaigns, deemed the ruling "a reprehensible outcome in a case that has been deeply flawed from the start".
- 'Outrageous' -
The sentencing was based on evidence from the junta-appointed information ministry that showed that at the time of his arrest, Fenster had been working at a local outlet, Myanmar Now, which had its licence revoked shortly after the coup, Than Zaw Aung said.
Fenster's team was barred from cross-examining the ministry's permanent secretary, he said, and the court did not consider tax evidence that Fenster had already left the outlet and was working for Frontier.
International Crisis Group's Myanmar senior advisor Richard Horsey described the sentence as "outrageous".
"It sends a message not only to international journalists... but also Myanmar journalists that reporting factually on the situation is liable to get them many, many years in prison," he told AFP.
He noted US diplomats were working to get Fenster released.
"It will be resolved through diplomatic channels and hopefully very quickly," he said.
"But obviously this sentence is a big setback to US efforts."
The sentencing comes days after former US diplomat and hostage negotiator Bill Richardson met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in the capital Naypyidaw, handing the increasingly isolated junta some rare publicity.
Richardson, declining to give further details, said the US State Department asked him not to raise Fenster's case during his visit.
Fenster, 37, is believed to have contracted Covid-19 during his detention, family members said during a conference call with US journalists in August.
He last spoke with US consular officials by phone on October 31, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.
Myanmar has been mired in chaos since the February coup, with the military trying to crush widespread democracy protests and stamp out dissent.
The press has also been restricted as the junta tries to tighten control over the flow of information, throttling internet access and revoking the licences of local media outlets.
"Myanmar has quickly reverted to an environment of information control, censorship and propaganda seen under military regimes in the past," UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.
"I urge the military authorities to immediately release all journalists being detained in relation to their work."
More than 100 journalists have been arrested since the putsch, according to Reporting ASEAN, a monitoring group.
It says 31 are still in detention.
The coup snuffed out Myanmar's short-lived experiment with democracy, with civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi now facing a raft of charges in a junta court that could see her jailed for decades.