|The journalists were slightly injured in the fighting in which several rebels were killed [Reuters]|
An Ethiopian court has found two Swedish journalists guilty of helping and promoting an outlawed rebel group, and entering the Horn of Africa nation illegally.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region on July 1 during clashes between Ethiopian forces and fighters of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) with whom the pair had been travelling.
“Guilty as charged, period, unanimous vote. They have shown that they are esteemed journalists, but we cannot conclude that someone with a good reputation doesn’t engage in criminal acts,” Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court.
The pair could face up to 15 years in prison when they are sentenced on December 27.
Charges of participating in terrorism were dropped last month due to a lack of evidence.
The Ethiopian government has blacklisted the ONLF as a terrorist group, and recently adopted legislation outlawing promotion of the rebels’ activities.
Ogaden area is off limits to foreigners and the duo entered Ethiopia from Somalia without visas. The journalists were slightly injured in the fighting in which several rebels were killed.
“The guilty verdict is a human, political, and journalistic catastrophe”
They admitted contact with the outlawed ONLF but rejected accusations that they received weapons training.
In Sweden, Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish Prime Minister, said the Swedish government will immediately contact 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.
Speaking with the TT news agency, the journalist’s Swedish lawyer, Thomas Olsson, said he hoped the court would decide to deport rather than imprison Schibbye and Persson.
“The hope is that they will nullify the charge related to terror crimes and be satisfied with deporting Martin and Johan because they entered the country illegally,” the said.
“Of course, it depends somewhat on how the court views their reason for entering the country. There are sentencing guidelines calling for up to 10 years in prison if the purpose was subversive, that is to say, if one had the intention of damaging the Ethiopian state. But since no such reason has been established, the hope is that they will settle on deporting them.”
Ulrika Knutson, chair of Sweden’s National Press Club, condemned the guilty verdict as a “human, political, and journalistic catastrophe”.
“We still don’t know how long the penalty will be. When we do know, the Swedish government must use all its powers to see that Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson come home as quickly as possible,” she told Journalisten.se, the newspaper of the Swedish journalists’ union.
Jesper Bengtsson, chair of the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders, also called on the Swedish government to take a more active role in the case of the Swedish journalists, calling their conviction a “blow against press freedom”.
“This is a major blow against quiet diplomacy as well,” he told the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) daily.
“I’m assuming that the lack of sharply-worded statements that has existed in the past will be corrected now.”