The Americans locked up in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison

It was supposed to be an exciting trip home to surprise his parents in the United States, his family said.

But on May 24, before he boarded the plane at Yangon International Airport, in Myanmar’s biggest city, Danny Fenster, 37, was stopped by security forces and inexplicably taken into custody.

Four months earlier, Myanmar’s military had seized power in a coup and embarked on a bloody crackdown against protesters, journalists, striking workers, activists and others opposed to the new ruling junta.

Fenster, a US citizen from Detroit, Michigan, was working in Yangon as managing editor of independent news outlet Frontier Myanmar, driving the highly regarded news site’s coverage of the fallout from the coup, despite the junta targeting media houses and journalists.

It remains unclear why Fenster was detained at the airport and it is unknown whether he has been charged with a crime. He has not had any contact with his parents, lawyers or officials at the US embassy in Yangon, who have tried to visit him, a state department official told CNN Business.

Frontier Myanmar said they understand he is being held in Insein Prison, Myanmar’s infamous clock-shaped penitentiary north of Yangon known for holding political prisoners and having a decades-old reputation for mistreatment and brutal conditions.

Since the military seized power on February 1, more than 5,900 people have been detained by the junta’s security forces, and a majority remain in detention, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Of those, at least 87 are journalists, with 51 still in detention, Reporting ASEAN documented.

Life in Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s post-coup Myanmar has become near impossible for media workers, with many forced into exile abroad or fleeing to rebel-controlled areas in the jungles as they expose the junta’s crimes. Those who remain in the cities have gone into hiding and swap safe houses every few days to avoid arrest. Despite the dangerous conditions, many of Myanmar’s journalists continue to deliver vital information to the public and the rest of the world.

Not all manage to evade the authorities. Most recently, journalist Aung Kyaw with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Zaw Zaw, a freelance journalist with outlet Mizzima News, were sentenced to two years in prison for spreading misinformation.

Those who escape the country are not guaranteed safety. Three DVB reporters and two activists were arrested last month in Thailand for illegal entry and faced deportation. They were recently granted asylum in an unnamed third safe country, DVB said.

Fenster’s family does not know why he was detained, though his father Buddy Fenster told CNN Business his son had “voiced concern” for journalists before his arrest.

“All the reporters, all the journalists are leaving this country,” Buddy Fenster said his son told him. “I got a feeling he thought it may be time to start heading home.”

Fenster isn’t the only foreign journalist to be locked up, nor the only US citizen. Nathan Maung, a US citizen and co-founder and editor​-in-chief of the online news site Kamayut Media, was detained on March 9 alongside co-founder and producer Hanthar Nyein, and remains in the notorious penitentiary.

Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi was detained in April and charged with spreading false news. He was held in Insein Prison before being sent back to Tokyo in May. Polish reporter Robert Bociaga was detained in March and released without charge weeks later.

The junta’s arrest of journalists — and refusal to release information about many of their cases — demonstrates the level of impunity and lawlessness Myanmar’s military operates under as it seeks to assert control over the country.

What happened to Nathan Maung

Nathan Maung’s Kamayut Media covered the junta’s arrest and killing of peaceful protesters, as well as the rise of the civil disobedience movement against the coup. Seven military trucks of soldiers stormed the outlet’s office on March 9, blocking entrances to the street as they arrested the two journalists, eyewitnesses said.

Like many media workers recently, they were charged with crimes under section 505a of Myanmar’s penal code — a law amended by the military that makes it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear,” spread “false news” or incite government employees. According to Human Rights Watch, the changes to the law were “clearly designed to penalize those encouraging members of the civil service of the security services to join the Civil Disobedience Movement.”

Two sources close to the pair and familiar with their treatment said Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein were subjected to torture during a two-week stint in an interrogation center before they were transferred to prison.

Detainees have detailed brutal acts of violence and torture by security forces in these type of military-run facilities.

The two sources said the pair were kept in adjoining rooms so they could hear each other scream during interrogations. They alleged the two journalists were beaten, denied food and water for days, and blindfolded so they couldn’t tell the difference between night and day. After five days, they were forced to kneel on blocks of ice until they had melted, the sources said.

Myanmar national Hanthar Nyein was forced to hold ice on his arm — if he moved, he was hit with a pole or the back of a gun, the sources said

The sources with information on their treatment spoke to CNN Business on the condition of anonymity, due to their fear of retaliation.

CNN Business reached out to Myanmar’s military for comment but has not received a response.

The US State Department said in a statement it was “deeply concerned over the detentions of US citizens Daniel Fenster and Nathan Maung.”

“We have pressed the military regime to release them both immediately and will continue to do so until they are allowed to return home safely to their families.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday the department has access to Nathan Maung but not Fenster. “That’s a violation, among other things, of the Vienna Convention. We are pressing this in every way that we can,” Blinken said.

Inside Insein

Both Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein thought they would die in the interrogation center, the sources said. But they survived, and were transferred to Myanmar’s main prison, Insein.

Built more than 130 years ago during the British colonial era, Insein Prison became notorious and feared — for its overcrowded and inhumane conditions, mental and physical torture, and terrible sanitation, food and healthcare, particularly under military rule.

Following uprisings in 1988 and 2007, Insein became packed with thousands of political prisoners including prominent democracy activists and journalists. Ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi spent time there in 2003 and 2009.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary and and co-founder of the AAPP, served two sentences in Insein following the 1988 uprising and said conditions there were “like hell.”

“We were not allowed to read or write. They wanted to destroy our intellect. We did not receive proper medicine, no treatment for injuries,” he said. During his second stint there in 1996, he said he was beaten every day for two weeks. “Many people died at Insein,” he said.

After leaving Insein, Bo Kyi fled to neighboring Thailand and now advocates for current and former political prisoners and their families, through the AAPP.

Conditions at Insein improved under Suu Kyi’s government, he said, with inmates able to access to reading materials and education, and the building of a new family visitor center. But political prisoners were still incarcerated there, and the prison remained overcrowded, with inadequate medical treatment, he said. Inmates are not treated “with human dignity,” Bo Kyi said.

With the military back in charge, conditions for inmates have worsened, Bo Kyi said. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said the rights of women were being violated in Insein due to a lack of toilets and no menstrual hygiene supplies. Trials and hearings are conducted, not in civilian courts, but military-run courts held inside the prison walls.

Inmates have limited contact with the outside world, including their families. “Lawyers are struggling to even get access and when they do they are harassed,” he said. “Family members have had to go into hiding.”

Sometimes it’s hard to even verify who is being held at the prison.

“There is great concern for the people who are believed to be in Insein but might be in unknown locations. They could be brutally tortured or already killed. If we can’t verify where they are, no one can monitor their condition,” Bo Kyi said.

Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi, who was detained in Insein in April, told CNN the political prisoners are kept separate from other inmates. Some are kept in a building with 14 cells and 11 prisoners — as he was with Nathan Maung and later Hanthar Nyein. There the isolated cells are 4 meters long by 2.5 meters wide.

Others are held in one room with more than 100 people packed in together. “There is a very small place to sleep, and some describe that they can not move,” he said.

Kitazumi said everyone was desperate for news from the outside, from the embassy or lawyers, so they would share bits of information they picked up such as the result of the ASEAN meeting on Myanmar.

Kitazumi said Nathan Maung would keep checking he could move a finger on his left hand after guards slammed his handcuffed wrists against a table, he said.

“I did not have experience of torture myself,” Kitazumi said. “A lot of political prisoners have experience of torture, from 24 to 48 hours of no sleep.”

Kitazumi described Nathan Maung as a “cheerful person” who “had a lot of knowledge about the history of Myanmar” and was a “film director who talked about his favorite movies,” he said.

Conditions in the cells were stifling. April and May are among the hottest months in Myanmar and the brick cells had little ventilation, let alone air conditioning.

“It was very hot during the daytime outside and in the cell. I remember Nathan Maung was always spraying water on the ground to try and cool down the cell,” he said. “Our building is made from brick and what happened in the prison, the brick keeps the heat even at night, so it was very hot.”

He described a chaotic court process in the prison, with overworked judges hearing case after case of those detained by the military. Embassy officials were not allowed to attend court; neither were members of the public, he said.

Kitazumi spoke of the guilt of being a foreigner and lucky enough to leave prison, but having to leave others behind. It was a feeling shared by Nathan Maung, he said.

“Of course they want to be released. However, he said that he would feel guilty to be released early for his US citizenship. He is worried about Hanthar and the other political prisoners,” he said.

A letter to the outside

Kay Zon Nway, 28, is a journalist for local media outlet Myanmar Now, who has been held in Insein since February 27.

A family member told CNN Business they are concerned about her well-being in prison and said they have not been able to meet nor speak with her since her detention more than three months ago.

Her family members have only snatched glimpses of her when she appeared for a court hearing held via video link. Their only communication is through letters they are allowed to send to each other just once a month.

The family member, who ​spoke on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns, is increasingly concerned that Kay Zon Nway’s mental health is deteriorating due to the harsh conditions inside the prison. “Her nervous system is weak and her toes and fingers are stiff. She is suffering mental health issues because she was put in isolation,” they said, adding that she also has stomach problems due to the food.

Kay Zon Nway, who is Muslim, was put in isolation when she started fasting for Ramadan — the guards believed she was on a hunger strike, the family member said. Myanmar Now reported that her lawyer told her family that prison officials later said she had been isolated in error, saying they had mistaken her for someone else.

“She can go crazy if this condition continues. They pressured her a lot inside the prison, they were telling her that people on hunger strike will only be released when they die,” the family member said.

It has become increasingly difficult to send supplies to the prison, the family member said. Prisoners given a meal a day, they said, but even with the food her family sends, it’s not enough.

“They can get hot water in the prison to make coffee or instant noodles. We used to send her food daily but the prison changed the rule and we could only send her food once in 15 days. Only dried snacks last for two weeks; not the normal food, as they don’t have a freezer or microwave to warm up the food,” the family member said.

In a letter sent on March 5 to her family and seen by CNN Business, Kay Zon Nway writes about her upcoming hearings and gives an insight into prison life. She asks her relatives to send things from the outside, like shampoo, face wash, Tiger Balm, a bed sheet, a new towel, and Michelle Obama’s autobiography. She said she has difficulty eating the prison food and asks her relatives for fresh fruit and home cooked meals.

It’s clear from the letter Kay Zon Nway is concerned for her family, telling her relatives to use her money for home expenses and for trips to see her when they can. She urgently wants to be updated on her court cases and reassures her family they will see each other soon.

Like all relatives of loved ones locked up since the coup, they just want them to come home.

“I only want her to come back alive,” the family member said.

It’s a feeling Danny Fenster’s parents share.

“It’s a total nightmare; it’s a total feeling of no control. It’s heart-wrenching,” his mother Rose Fenster recently said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” in late May.

It has been more than two weeks since Fenster’s detention and there still has been no word on his whereabouts or condition. His parents have started a petition to keep pressure on the Biden administration and US State Department to get their son back to the United States.

They, like the parents of thousands of others ensnared in the post-coup crackdown, are terrified for their son, trapped and held at the whim of a military that sees reporting the truth as an existential threat that must be extinguished.

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