Ethiopia court convicts Swedes on terrorism charge

December 21, 2011

“They have not been able to prove that they did not support terrorism,” Shemsu said, speaking in Ethiopia’s Amharic language.

The conviction attracted a barrage of criticism from rights groups and Sweden.

Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region on July 1 in the company of rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) after entering Ethiopia from Somalia.

Both the freelancers were also found guilty of entering Ethiopia illegally.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said Schibbye and Persson are innocent and must be set free.

“Our position is and continues to be that they were in the country on a journalistic assignment. They must be released as soon as possible in order to be reunited with their families in Sweden,” Reinfeldt said in a statement after the verdict.

Reinfeldt said the government was “already making high-level contact with the Ethiopian government.”

Amnesty International also called for the immediate and unconditional release of the pair.

“The government chooses to interpret meeting with a terrorist organisation as support of that group and therefore a terrorist act,” Amnesty’s Ethiopia researcher Claire Beston said.

“Amnesty International believes there is no evidence that the men were supporting the objectives of the ONLF, or were guilty of any criminal wrongdoing,” she added.

Media rights group Reporters without Borders said it was “scandalised” by the court decision.

Both reporters appeared expressionless at the verdict, according to an AFP reporter in the court, but it was not clear whether they understood the judge since they had no translator.

They had earlier admitted contact with the ONLF and to entering Ethiopia illegally, but rejected terrorism charges including accusations they received weapons training.

Last month, charges of participating in terrorism were dropped for lack of evidence.

Prosecution lawyers called for a combined sentence of 13 years for the terrorism charges with a further five years and six months for illegal entry.

Judges retired from the court Wednesday to consider a decision on sentencing, which is due on December 27.

The court was crowded with people including family members of the Swedes, a dozen international journalists as well as diplomats.

As Persson left court he embraced his parents. Schibbye told reporters in Swedish as he left that “there will be more rounds” in the trial.

The two said they met ONLF chiefs in London and Nairobi before meeting with about 20 members of the group in Ethiopia, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Somali border.

Persson said meeting with the ONLF contacts was for professional reasons only, as part of their investigations on the activities of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil the two were to report on.

But the judge dismissed this, saying as he read the verdict that he had not found the defence’s evidence “convincing.”

“If the aim of the journalists was to report on the oil company they could have done all of this legally — if that was their main objective,” Shemsu said.

“Since they were caught with (ONLF) rebels we find it difficult to believe they only came to find that information.”

Rights groups have criticised the court process all along ever since Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview ahead of the start of the trial the Swedes were “at the very least messenger boys of a terrorist organisation.”

The ONLF has been fighting for independence of the remote southeastern Ogaden region since 1984, claiming they have been marginalised from Addis Ababa.