Swedish reporters sentenced to 11 yrs in Ethiopia

MICHAEL ATSBEHA

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — A court in Ethiopia has sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in prison on charges of supporting terrorism after the two illegally entered the country with an ethnic Somali rebel group in a case that has been criticized by media rights groups.

Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled Tuesday that the two freelance journalists — Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye — will serve "rigorous imprisonment" following their convictions last week.

Ethiopian troops had captured Persson and Schibbye six months ago during a clash with rebels in eastern Ethiopia's restive Somali region, a no-go area for reporters. Ethiopia considers the rebel group a terrorist organization, and it is very difficult for journalists to gain access to the region. Rights groups say that is so abuses there are not exposed.

The judge has accused the Ogaden National Liberation Front — or ONLF — of organizing the Swedes' journey starting in London. Outlawed groups in many countries frequently facilitate the travels of reporters in order to have their version of events told.

There was no visible reaction to the sentencing from the two journalists. The defendants' lawyers plan to hold a meeting at the Swedish Embassy later Tuesday to discuss the possibility of an appeal.

In Sweden, Foreign Ministry spokesman Anders Jorle called the sentencing expected but regrettable. He said Sweden has been in contact with the Ethiopian government over the court case "at a high level."

Their Swedish lawyer, Thomas Olsson, could not be immediately reached for comment but told national broadcaster SVT that the sentence was a disappointment, but that he and his clients had not yet decided if they would appeal.

"We will try to adjust to the new situation and help them as much as possible," he said, noting that an appeal can take up to two years and that the alternative would be for them to try to get pardoned.

"The latter means that they have to confess to these crimes and apologize, which of course is a hard thing to do when you regard yourself innocent. That's why an appeal is natural, but it's a tough decision. That's what Martin and Johan are up against in the coming 15 days," Olsson said.

Persson and Schibbye are both freelance contributors to the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent. Schibbye is also a writer. The two regularly had their work published in national newspapers in Sweden and Norway.

The pair said they had been gathering news about a Swedish oil company that is exploring Ethiopia's Somali region for oil. Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was a member of the board of the company — Lundin Petroleum — between 2000 and 2006, and left the board when he was appointed foreign minister.

Persson and Schibbye have acknowledged that they entered Ethiopia illegally.

Jonas Nordling, chairman of The Swedish Union of Journalists, called Tuesday's sentencing "a setback for journalism, and it's a personal tragedy for Martin and Johan and their families. We will do all we can to support them."

"It's clear that it's a political sentence. A heavy responsibility now lies on the Swedish government to solve this on a political level," he said, noting that the freedom of the press must be protected and defended.

Swedish government officials have said that the two Swedes were on a "journalistic mission," and have pushed for the two to be freed.

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.

Amnesty International said it believes the two Swedes are "prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate work."

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Associated Press reporter Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.