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12/21/11 - Swedish journalists found guilty on terrorism charges in Ethiopa

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Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye face 15 years in prison for entering Ogaden with ethnic Somali rebels

Associated Press in Addis Ababa

A court in Ethiopia has convicted two Swedish journalists of supporting terrorism after the pair illegally entered the country with an ethnic Somali rebel group.

The journalists, who face up to 15 years in prison at sentencing next week, have said they were gathering news at the time of their arrest.

Judge Shemsu Sirgaga said their explanation was "very unlikely," accusing the Ogaden National Liberation Front of organising the Swedes' journey, starting in London via Kenya and Somalia into Ethiopia.

Ethiopian troops captured Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye six months ago during a clash with rebels in Ethiopia's Somali region in the country's east. Ethiopia considers the rebel group to be a terrorist organisation

The chairman of the Swedish Union of Journalists, Jonas Nordling, said the conviction was clearly an attempt to deter reporters from investigating alleged human rights abuses in the Ogaden region.

"This is a political verdict," Nordling said. "There is no evidence to support that this is a terror crime.

"They are two established reporters who have used accepted journalistic methods to enter the area."

Ethiopian officials, he added, "absolutely do not want to see an open examination of what happens in the Ogaden area."

The pair said they had been gathering news about a Swedish oil company that is exploring the region for oil. The Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, is a former director of the company, Lundin Petroleum.Shemsu said that "journalism demands impartiality and balance but doesn't require violating the laws of a sovereign country".

"The court finds the defendants guilty as charged in a unanimous vote," he said.

The Swedes' lawyers, their families and the Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia left the court without commenting.

In Sweden, the prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, said his government would be contacting high-level officials in the Ethiopian government.

"Our starting point is and remains that they have been in the country on a journalistic mission. They should be freed as soon as possible to be able to reunite with their families in Sweden," Reinfeldt said.

Bildt said on Twitter that Sweden was expressing "grave concern" at the verdict. "We will continue to work to set them free," he said.

Persson and Schibbye have admitted they entered Ethiopia illegally.

"Your honour, I am a journalist and my job is to gather news. I am guilty of entering Ethiopia illegally, but I am not guilty of the other activities I am charged of," Schibbye said at a preliminary hearing in October.

"I entered the country illegally and nothing else," Persson added.

International observers have closely followed the trial. Rights groups and diplomats say Ethiopia's anti-terrorism proclamation restricts freedom of expression and is used as a tool to crack down on dissent.

Amnesty International said there was no evidence to suggest the Swedes were doing anything but working as reporters.

"We believe that these men are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate work," said Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher. "The overly broad provisions of the anti-terrorism proclamation allow the authorities to criminalise the exercise of freedom of expression."

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Guest Thursday, 21 September 2017