Swedish reporters in Ethiopia ‘terror’ trial

Trial of journalists accused of supporting outlawed rebels in Ogaden region adjourned until December 21.

Martin Schibbye Johan persson
Schibbye and Persson were slightly injured in the gunfight in which they were captured and several rebels killed

The trial of two Swedish journalists facing charges of supporting and training rebels in Ethiopia’s restive Ogaden region has been adjourned.

Closing arguments in the case were scheduled for December 21 as Wednesday’s court session ended in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.

Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region where Ethiopian forces have clashed with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) on July 1.

The area is off limits to foreigners and the duo entered Ethiopia from Somalia without visas, travelling with rebel soldiers.

They were arrested after a gun battle erupted between Ethiopian troops and ONLF fighters, and are charged with supporting a terrorist group and entering the country illegally. The journalists were slightly injured in the fighting and several rebels were killed.

Schibbye and Persson face up to 15 years in jail if found guilty.

A British and an American war correspondent called as expert witnesses by the defence appeared in court on Wednesday, telling the court that entering a country illegally for reporting purposes is a work method commonly used by journalists in conflict zones.

Appearing in court on Tuesday, Schibbye and Persson admitted contact with the outlawed ONLF but rejected accusations that they received weapons training.

In a court session last month, the prosecutor presented video footage said to be obtained from the journalists’ own equipments showing the pair posing with automatic rifles.

The prosecutor later had to admit that Ethiopian authorities had doctored some of the footage, adding audio of gunshots.

The journalists said the weapons belonged to a security guard at a hotel in Somalia and not the ONLF. They said they had been posing with the weapons as they sought to interview the guard, who had been active in the Somali anti-government group al-Shabab.

Investigating oil company

Last month, charges of participating in terrorism were dropped due to a lack of evidence.

“This video doesn’t show some bizarre training with weapons in a parking lot, it shows another day at the office for a foreign correspondent,” one of the accused, Martin Schibbye, told the judge.

“I came to Ethiopia for one purpose, that’s to do my job as a journalist.

– Johan Persson

Witness Matthias Goransson, the editor of Swedish Filter magazine said the pair were on assignment to report on alleged rights violations linked to the activities of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil.

The Ethiopian military has been accused of committing rights violations – including killings, rape and driving away local communities – in order to protect the foreign oil operations.

“It was a report on [Lundin’s] action in the Ogaden. Good and bad, whatever it was, was to find the facts and reporting them,” Goransson said.

Goransson added that he was aware the journalists planned to enter Ethiopia illegally.

“They informed me and I took it as fact that the government of Ethiopia would not let them into the Ogaden,” he said, adding that journalists often have to break laws to report in conflict zones.

Schibbye and Persson said they met ONLF chiefs in the UK and Kenya before meeting about 20 members of the group in Ethiopia, about 40km from the Somali border.

Persson said meeting with the ONLF contacts was for professional reasons only. “I came to Ethiopia for one purpose, that’s to do my job as a journalist,” he said.

Journalists harassed

Swedish diplomats have been monitoring the case closely and the Swedish embassy in Addis Ababa has among other things assisted in providing legal assistance to the defendants.

“We see them as journalists who entered the country on a journalistic assignment,” Teo Zetterman, a Swedish foreign ministry spokesman, told Al Jazeera.

CPJ and other international journalism groups have urged Ethiopian authorities to release the pair.

According to CPJ, 79 Ethiopian journalists have fled the country over the last decade after government harassment. The government has detained or expelled journalists from foreign media outlets including the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

US-based Human Rights Watch said in September that the Ethiopian government’s anti-terrorism law contained an overly broad and vague definition of terrorist acts.

“The government is exploiting the law’s overly broad language to accuse peaceful critics, journalists, and political opponents of encouraging terrorism,” the group said.

The ONLF has been fighting for independence of the remote southeastern Ogaden region, mainly inhabited by Somalis, since 1984, claiming they have been marginalised by Ethiopian authorities.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies