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Ethiopia pardons jailed Swedish journalists

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Ethiopia pardons jailed Swedish journalists
16:18 CEST+02:00
The Ethiopian authorities have released two Swedish journalists detained for the past 14 months for "supporting terrorism", the Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman said Monday.

The pardon was approved by the late prime minister Meles Zenawi before his death last month and comes days after Sweden's foreign minister attended his funeral in Addis Ababa.

"Yes they are already released," said Dina Mufti, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to AFP on Monday afternoon.

He was unable to elaborate on their current whereabouts, however.

Justice Minister Berhan Hailu said the two journalists were expected to fly out of Ethiopia within a day.

"The decision was made on the 12th of July," when Meles was still alive, he told reporters. "According to the constitution, they have to leave the country within 24 hours."

The two jailed Swedes, reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, were jailed for "supporting terrorism" on July 1st, 2011 together with rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) after illegally entering from Somalia.

Each was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Ethiopia's justice minister Hailu, confirmed that Swedes were among over 1,950 prisoners who had been pardoned, a group set to be released in a ceremony on Tuesday, wrote the Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

The minister added in a statement that the Swedes had “shown true regret for their crimes and behaved well in prison” according to DN.

At the weekend, Sveriges Television (SVT) reported that Ethiopia traditionally pardons prisoners in connection with the Ethiopian new year, which this year falls on Tuesday, September 11th.

Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt was one of the few Western ministers who attended the funeral in Addis Ababa of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on September 2nd.

His presence at the funeral fuelled speculation that the Ethiopian authorities, under intense international pressure over the detention of the Swedish journalists, could take advantage of the New Year pardons to free them.

Schibbye's mother expressed her relief at the news of her son's release.

"Right now I'm just very, very happy, and oh how we've waited for this day," Karin Schibbye told Swedish news agency TT.

The pardon sparked no immediate reaction from the government but the Swedish Union of Journalists hailed the decision to release the pair.

"I am so very glad that Martin (Schibbye) and Johan (Persson) have been freed after 14 months in an Ethiopian prison. I hope they can be reunited with their families as soon as possible," union chief Jonas Nordling said in a statement.

"We hope they will be home on Swedish ground soon," Lotta Schuellerqvist, of the Swedish branch of French-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said in the same statement.

The case had drawn heavy criticism from rights groups. The journalists were convicted under Ethiopia's anti-terror law, which critics have called vague and indiscriminate.

The freelance journalists were in the remote southeastern region of Ogaden, populated mainly by ethnic Somalis, to investigate the activities of a company affiliated with the Swedish oil firm Lundin Petroleum.

Press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists has said Ethiopia has one of the most restricted media in the world, with 79 journalists forced into exile since 2001.

It was not immediately clear whether Ethiopian journalists who were also detained under the anti-terror law would be released as part of the wave of presidential pardons, which officials expect to affect around 2,000 people.

"Despite this development, other journalists remain in prison and we hope that Ethiopia will release them as soon as possible," IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said in a statement.

AFP/The Local/og

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