The Federal High Court third criminal bench convicted
on December 21 two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, on two separate counts pertaining to charges of illegally entering the country and availing their professional services for a terrorist organization.
The judges read the guilty verdict against the defendants to the instant gasps of the court audience which consisted mostly of the Swedish diplomatic and journalistic community and the defendant’s relatives.
The judge read the charge saying that the two defendants had made contact with ONLF figures since early 2011, first in London with an ONLF official named “Abdi” before flying to Nairobi and then in Somalia to discuss the activities of Oil companies including Canadian firm ‘Africa Oil’ and Swedish firm “Lund Oil”, a South African Oil firm and another unnamed Oil firm in the West Gode area of the Somali region.
The defendants had said that as Swedish oil firm “Lund oil” which had been incorporated into Africa Oil Company in Ethiopia had an involvement in the area and wanted to observe the impact it was having there. The Swedish firm had already been involved in a lawsuit in the European courts for its involvement in neighboring Sudan which had a long civil war.
The defendants also brought four eyewitnesses who have extensive experience in conflict areas who said as journalists they need protection in that area, so they needed armed men around them in order to travel to the place. They said they planned on asking the Ethiopian government’s side of the story to provide balanced coverage.
The court however said the defense witnesses had only testified about the professional conduct of media personnel which did not pertain to the activities the suspects were accused of and said they used illegal means to gather information before proceeding to announce the guilty verdict on the two separate charges.
The court had in earlier session dropped the charge of being accomplices to a terrorist organization.
After the verdict was read the plea for aggravating or mitigating their sentencing began. The prosecution argued that the defendant’s acts were pre-planned and premeditated to enter the country with ONLF fighters in an attempt to create anxiety and fear using their media profession as a propaganda forum for the ONLF.
The defense contended that they’ve already admitted and apologized for entering the country without proper documentation. They argued that even if they had been found guilty of giving publicity to a terrorist organization nothing had actually been published. They have no prior criminal records and their parents who are elderly are dependent on them.
The defense also said the defendant’s exemplary behavior and the fact that they are far away from their families in an Ethiopian prison, could also be a mitigating circumstance for their sentencing.
The Middle Judge Shemsu Sirgaga after hearing both aggravating and mitigating circumstances adjourned the case until Tuesday December 27 for final sentencing.
The defendants were apprehended on July 1 with two other ONLF fighters after a gun battle between the ONLF fighters they were travelling with and the Somali regional police forces that left a number of ONLF fighters dead and the two Swedish journalists injured.
After hearing the verdict the journalists walked silently and greeted family members before passing through the courtroom back to prison.
Meanwhile the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt released a statement after the conviction of the journalists’ saying “the government is seriously concerned about today’s judgment against the two Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson in Addis Ababa.
The statement read the government’s starting point is and remains that they have been in the country on a journalistic mission and that they should be freed as soon as possible and be able to rejoin their families in Sweden and that it is making high-level contact with the Ethiopian government in this matter.
International Media watchdog groups have also asked the two reporters to be released saying the two Swedish journalists were trying to report from a region that is underreported and closed to journalists.