By Helen Regan and Sandi Sidhu, CNN
American citizen Nathan Maung, who has been detained in Myanmar since March 9, was released and deported to the United States on Tuesday after charges against him were dropped, his lawyer said.
Nathan Maung is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Myanmar online news site Kamayut Media and had spent more than two months incarcerated in the country’s notorious Insein Prison, north of Yangon.
He was arrested alongside co-founder and producer Hanthar Nyein, a Myanmar national, as security forces raided their offices in early March. Sources close to the pair previously told CNN Business they suffered two weeks of torture while held in an interrogation center after their arrest.
American journalist Danny Fenster, who was prevented from boarding a flight out of Myanmar on May 24, remains in detention. US Embassy officials have not been permitted contact with him, and Fenster has not been charged with a crime, according to family members.
On Monday, Nathan Maung’s lawyer Tin Zar Oo said charges against her client were dropped after the police chief withdrew the case. He was initially charged with spreading misinformation.
Tin Zar Oo said she is unsure why the charges were dropped but said, “the main thing is that the US embassy was calling for the rights of their citizen and we prepared all the documents for him. I think Nathan Maung got released because of a good cooperation between the embassy and the lawyers,” she said.
Like many journalists since the coup, Nathan Maung and Hanthar Nyein 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.
Though the charges against Nathan Maung were dropped, Hanthar Nyein remains in prison charged with spreading misinformation. Lawyer Tin Zar Oo said she believes he will face further charges, but this has not been confirmed.
Tin Zar Oo said Nathan Maung is “happy” to be released but it is bittersweet because his colleague Hanthar Nyein remains in prison.
“He will not be allowed to stay in Myanmar anymore so I saw him with a sad face,” she said. “He told us that he will try everything he can for Hanthar’s release.”
CNN Business reached out to Myanmar’s military for comment but has not received a response.
Nathan Maung was due to fly out of the country at 7:40 a.m. local time on a ticket arranged by the US Embassy and his destination would be Washington DC, Tin Zar Oo said. He was transferred from Insein Prison to a Yangon police station on Monday, where he took a Covid test and was permitted to meet his family who live in Myanmar, she said.
A State Department official told CNN Business on Monday, “We are following the case very closely but do not have anything new to share at this time.”
Under the command of coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1, sparking months of civilian protests and deadly clashes. As of Tuesday, more than 860 people have been killed by junta-led security forces and at least 6,046 have been arrested since the coup, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Among them are protesters, activists, journalists, celebrities, government officials, as well as children and bystanders.
The junta has also targeted the press in a bid to stifle information, by suspending the licenses of independent media houses, raiding media offices and issuing arrest warrants for journalists.
Many media workers have been forced into exile abroad or fled to rebel-controlled areas in the jungles. Those who remain in the cities have gone into hiding and swap safe houses every few days to avoid arrest.
At least 87 journalists have been arrested, with 51 still in detention, Reporting ASEAN documented.
Nathan Maung’s release came as the trial of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi began on Monday. The court in the capital, Naypyidaw, heard the first criminal cases against the deposed leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, addressing three charges, including that Suu Kyi violated a communications law by allegedly importing and using a number of walkie-talkie radios, and violated coronavirus restrictions during election campaigning last year.
The court also heard one case against deposed President U Win Myint over the alleged violation of the country’s disaster management laws.
The trial will resume Tuesday for Suu Kyi on two other counts, while the most serious charges against her, of corruption and violations of the State Secrets Act have yet to be assigned a trial date.
Analysts have described the court proceedings as a “show trial” and “a political spectacle in order to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.”