By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
December 22, 2011 (ADDIS ABABA) – An Ethiopian court on Wednesday found two Swedish journalists guilty of supporting terrorism and illegal entry to country.
Johan Persson, a photographer, and Martin Schibbye, a reporter, were arrested on 1 July after they entered Ethiopia’s Ogaden region from Somalia along armed fighters of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist group labeled by Ethiopia as terrorist organization.
The court said both are found guilty of supporting and promoting the outlawed rebel group. The two Swedes have admitted to illegal entry but denied to supporting terrorism.
The case is adjourned for December 27 for final sentencing. Convicts could face up to 15 years of of behind bars under country’s controversial anti terrorism proclamation. The prosecutor has requested sentences of 18 years in prison against the two Swedes to both charges.
The court ruling has returned wider condemnation from a number of international human right organizations.
Human Rights watch called it "unfair trial" and "sham convictions" further said the chief purpose of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law is to suppress the legitimate work of the media.
Reporters without Borders in a statement termed the verdict "disgraceful".
"Instead of proving their guilt, the judge accuses them of failing to prove their innocence. This is back-to-front," Reporters without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said.
Reporters without Borders argued that despite their illegal entry the two Swedes never supported terrorism or had any intention to support rebels but where there only to conduct their legitimate journalist work.
The rights organization called on the Swedish government to step up its diplomatic efforts for the release Persson and Schibbye.
Earlier to the verdict, Reporters without Borders on Tuesday wrote a letter to Ben Emmerson, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms calling upon him to visit Ethiopia and persuade authorities of the horn nation to stop using counter-terrorism as a weapon to suppress freedom of expression.
The United States which considers Ethiopia as its close ally on regional war against terrorism, has also voiced concern to the situation of free press in the horn of Africa’s country.
In a press statement released today the US Department of State said although US government understands country’s concern of terrorism to national security however, "As we have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian Government, a free press is an important element of democratic society".
"We will continue to monitor the ongoing trials of journalists on terrorism-related charges, and will continue our dialogue with the Ethiopian Government on press freedoms," the Department of State said.