Ethiopian court: 2 Swedish reporters guilty

December 21, 2011 - 5:56 AM

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — A court in Ethiopia convicted two Swedish journalists Wednesday of supporting terrorism after the pair illegally entered the country with an ethnic Somali rebel group.

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

However, Judge Shemsu Sirgaga said that was "very unlikely," accusing the Ogaden National Liberation Front of organizing 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 restive Somali region in the country's east, a no-go area for reporters. Ethiopia considers the rebel group a terrorist organization

The chairman of the Swedish Union of Journalists, Jonas Nordling, deplored the conviction, saying it is clearly aimed at deterring 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," he said, adding Ethiopian officials "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 Ethiopia's Somali region for oil. Sweden's foreign minister Carl Bildt has close ties to the firm — Lundin Petrol. He was a former member of the company's board of directors.

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 family and the Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia left the court without making any comments.

In Sweden, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt 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.

Bildt, the country's foreign minister, said on Twitter that Sweden expresses "grave concern" over the verdict. "We will continue to work to set them free," he said.

Persson and Schibbye have acknowledged that they entered Ethiopia illegally.

"Your honor, 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 during the case's preliminary hearing in October.

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

The international community has closely followed the terror trial against the Swedes. 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.

The rights group Amnesty International said after the verdict that there was no evidence to suggest that the two Swedes were doing anything but carrying out work 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 criminalize the exercise of freedom of expression."

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Associated Press writer Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.