An Ethiopian court Wednesday convicted Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson of supporting a terrorist group and entering the country illegally, with the prosecution calling for a maximum sentence of 18 years and six months.
The Swedes were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region on July 1st in the company of Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) fighters, after entering from Somalia.
“ONLF appeals, in the name of the oppressed people of the Ogaden to the international community, to persuade the Ethiopia regime to release immediately the innocent Swedish journalists,” a rebel statement said.
The “unjust conviction… is a clear and unequivocal indication of the nature of the so-called democracy practiced by the Ethiopian regime,” they added.
The United States also expressed concern over the conviction of the two Swedish journalists.
“The verdict appears to equate reporting about terrorism with support for terrorism,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner in a statement late Wednesday, adding that Washington “notes with concern” the court’s decision.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region on July 1st in the company of rebels from the ONLF after entering Ethiopia from Somalia.
The conviction Wednesday attracted a barrage of criticism from rights
groups and Sweden.
“We recognize the authority of the judicial process in Ethiopia and respect the Ethiopian government’s legitimate concerns about terrorism and the need to protect the country’s national security,” Toner said.
“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.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said the two are innocent and must be freed.
The Swedes have admitted entering Ethiopia illegally and to contact with the ONLF as part of their investigations on the activities of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil in the Ogaden, but have rejected terrorism charges.
The ONLF has been fighting for independence of the remote southeastern Ogaden region since 1984, claiming they have been marginalised from Addis Ababa.
The sentencing is expected to be announced on December 27th.