Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye left an Ethiopian prison on Monday afternoon for the safe confines of the Swedish embassy in Addis Ababa where they spent most of the evening before boarding a plane shortly after midnight.
“They are in good spirits,” Sweden’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Jens Odlander, told the TT news agency.
“They arrived here around 5pm local time. We’ve had a beer and eaten Jansson’s, as well as blueberry muffins,” he added, referring to Jansson’s Temptation, a traditional Swedish casserole of creamy potatoes and anchovies.
Shortly before taking off for an undisclosed destination, Schibbye told TT that he was still trying to grasp the fact that he and Persson had been released.
“To once again be free was almost a bigger shock than being in prison,” he said.
Schibbye and Persson were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region last year in the company of what the government claimed were rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
The two had reportedly entered Ethiopia to investigate the activities of a company affiliated with the Swedish oil firm Lundin Petroleum.
The pair was detained after illegally crossing the border from Somalia, and after a long and controversial trial were jailed for 11 years by an Ethiopian court in December 2011, having been found guilty of supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally.
Their conviction drew criticism from rights groups who claimed Ethiopia’s anti-terror law was vague and indiscriminate. Nevertheless, the Swedish journalists opted not to appeal the ruling and instead hope for a pardon.
Following a flurry of rumours at the weekend that a pardon for the two was imminent, Ethiopian government officials confirmed on Monday afternoon that Schibbye and Persson had been released.
According to Ethiopian Minister of Justice Berhan Hailu, the two Swedes had “shown true regret for their crimes and behaved well in prison”.
Speaking with Ethiopian television shortly after the pair’s release, Schibbye expressed his regret over entering Ethiopia illegally, calling it “the biggest mistake of my life”.
“A mistake that almost cost us our lives,” he said.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt hailed the Swedes’ release via a statement released via his official Twitter account.
“I warmly welcome that the Ethiopian authorities have now released Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson and allowed them to leave the country,” Bildt wrote.
By early Tuesday morning, the plane carrying the Swedish journalists had landed at an undisclosed location, according to a statement from their families delivered by Anna Roxvall, a colleague of the previously jailed Swedes.
“Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye have just landed somewhere where they can catch their breath,” said the statement, according to the TT news agency.
“We are incredibly relieved and happy that they are free and that we will soon all be reunited. It’s been a tough year and we’ve been forced to make many hard decisions in order to reach the goal of having them feel as well as one can while in prison and get them released as soon as possible. Now we are there and it feels great.”