By Tesfa-Alem Tekle
December 27, 2011 (ADDIS ABABA) - An Ethiopia court sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years of imprisonment on Tuesday for allegedly backing a banned rebel group and illegally entering the country.
- Swedish journalists sentenced in Ethiopia, Johan Persson (L) and Martin Schibbye (R) (AFP)
Ethiopian security forces arrested photo journalist, Johan Persson, and reporter, Martin Schibbye in July after the Swedes crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia with armed members of Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist movement blacklisted by Addis Ababa as a terrorist organisation.
On 21 December a court found both guilty of supporting and promoting the ethnic Somali ONLF rebel group and to entering country without permission. The reporters have admitted to illegal entering the country but deny supporting terrorism.
The court said the two foreign journalists met with an ONLF leader in London, then travelled to Kenya before crossing to Ethiopia’s Ogaden region via semi-autonomous Puntland.
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga at the Federal High Court Third Criminal Bench announced the 11 year sentences for both.
Sirgaga said it was an appropriate sentence and noted that the pair not having criminal records and the support given them by their families was taken into consideration during sentencing. He told convicts to they have a right to appeal.
"It is obvious that this is a political sentence," Swedish Union of Journalists president Jonas Nordling said in a statement.
Jesper Bengtsson, the president of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Swedish section described the convictions as “deplorable”.
The ONLF is calling upon the international community to show support for the journalists, whose arrest is “evidence of the nature of Addis Ababa regime as a terror regime, which do not respect Human Rights, and freedom of press.”
Prosecutors were previously calling for 18 year sentences for the defendants.
The reporters claim that they crossed into Ethiopia to cover a report on a Swedish oil exploration company in the Ogaden region.
The Ethiopian government does not allow journalists to enter the rebel-active Ogaden region for, they claim, security reasons.
The convictions have received criticism from the Swedish government, various media bodies and a number of international human rights organisations, condemning the conviction as “politically motivated”
Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, has called on Ethiopian authorities to free the journalists “as soon as possible”, further straining tense relations between the two countries.
RSF ranked Ethiopia 139 out of 178 for press freedom in 2010.
Freedom House placed Ethiopia in the worst press freedom category, “not free” in 2011.