Addis Ababa, Dec 28, 2011 (TSR) – In a highly politicized trial, two Swedish journalists have been sentenced in an Ethiopian court to 11-year jail terms after being convicted of supporting terrorism by helping and promoting the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group, and entering the Horn of Africa nation illegally.
The freelance journalists say they were covering the ONLF as a news story and deny assisting their cause.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in July after they entered Ethiopia’s Ogaden province from Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region with a team of ONLF fighters. Last week, the prosecution asked for a combined sentence of 18 years 6 months for both charges which stirred diplomatic strains between two countries.
Addis Ababa has blacklisted the ONLF as a terrorist group, and its recently-adopted anti-terrorism legislation outlaws promotion of the insurgents’ activities.
The two Swedes had also been charged with terrorism but were acquitted in November on that count as the court did not believe they were involved in carrying out any attacks. They did admit to crossing the border without a permit. However, during the November trial, prosecutors screened a three-hour video they said was obtained from one of the Swedes’ laptops, showing footage of them hoisting rifles alongside armed men and being briefed over a map on how to infiltrate the region.
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court last week that the two journalists had entered Ethiopia illegally under the pretext of investigating the impact of potential oil discoveries and production in the region on the local population. “Instead they accompanied the ONLF into the country and were caught alongside the rebels. This contradicts their claims,” he said in handing down the guilty verdict.
Persson and Schibbye are both freelance contributors to the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent. Schibbye is also a writer. The two regularly had their work published in national newspapers in Sweden and Norway.
The pair said they had been gathering news about a Swedish oil company that is exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region for oil. Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was a member of the board of the company — Lundin Petroleum — between 2000 and 2006. He left the board when he was appointed foreign minister.
Seeing the trial touches bilateral relations, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also immediately contacted high-level officials in the Ethiopian government.
Bildt said on Twitter last week that Sweden expressed “grave concern” over the verdict, “We will continue to work to set them free.”
He later told reporters in Stockholm that Sweden had sent a “clear and vocal” statement about its concerns to the Ethiopian government, “Ethiopia is an important country and we do have an interest in long-term good relations with Ethiopia,” he said. “I fail to see that the Ethiopian government would have an interest in what would be a long-lasting and serious negative impact on our bilateral relations.”
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled today that Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye should serve “rigorous imprisonment,” and said the verdict “should satisfy the goal of peace and security” under the country’s far-reaching anti-terrorism law.
Human rights groups have said the law, which has been criticized by human rights monitors in the United Nations, is being used by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to crack down on dissent. CPJ research claim that fundamental principles of due process were violated during the journalists’ trial, including the presumption of innocence, which is enshrined in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. In addition, numerous accusatory public statements by state media and top government officials, including Zenawi, appeared to predetermine the outcome of the trial.
“The harsh sentences against Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye are an affront to justice and press freedom,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “With this politicized case, authorities showed they are intent on quashing coverage of important events in the Ogaden region. The Ethiopian government should unconditionally release Persson and Schibbye, and allow independent access to the Ogaden region.”
Ethiopian officials have denied using the trial as politically motivated reprisal. “How can there be a political motive when prosecutors provided evidence throughout the trial and the defendants themselves admitted to entering the country illegally with rebels?” Justice Ministry Spokesman Desalegn Deressa told Reuters. Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon accused international human rights groups of being “interested only in regime change,” he told AFP. “We feel these people do not understand the concept of rule of law,” Simon said.
The journalists’ defense lawyers have not yet said whether they will appeal the sentences, news reports said.