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The Federal High Court third criminal bench in a verdict that drew international media attention
and elicited international responses ranging from concern to outrage on December 27, 2011 sentenced two Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson to 11 years in jail each, for illegal crossing of a sovereign land and supporting an outlawed armed group; Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF); which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian Government, through their profession. The Swedish pair are also the first journalists to be convicted and sentenced under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The pair was caught on July 1, 2011 deep inside the borders of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region purportedly with two ONLF fighters following an armed skirmish between the Somali region special police force and dozens of ONLF fighters. The two ONLF fighters were sentenced to 17 years imprisonment on November 4, for being members of a terrorist organization that waged war on the Ethiopian government.
The pair had said they crossed the border into Ethiopia from neighboring Somalia after a stay in the Puntland regional city of Galcakyo to investigate the activities of Swedish oil Firm Lund which had come under severe scrutiny for its involvement in the neighboring country of Sudan, which had been involved in a bloody civil war.
Puntland is a relatively semi-autonomous region of Northern Somalia that borders the lawless southern Somalia to the south and the self declared republic of Somaliland to the north.
The Swedish pair had earlier met with an ONLF representative named “Abdi” in London, United Kingdom before flying to Nairobi, Kenya and then to Somalia in between which they talked to supposed refugees from the Ogaden region living in the large northern Kenyan refugee camp Dadab.
The Swedes who, after a three month trial were convicted on two separate counts on December 21, by the court, had the prosecution ask for a total of 18 years and six months as punishment for the pair but the court ruled that they would be subjected to 14 years and six months imprisonment which were reduced to 11 years in light of the numerous mitigating circumstances brought by their defense team.
The 11 year sentence was divided into two parts with 10 years made for supporting terrorism through their journalistic profession while a one year sentence was for illegal entry into the country.
The prosecution also asked that the audio and video evidence as well as other documents seized as exhibits from the pair be expropriated by the Ethiopian State to which the defense raised no objection and the court ruled that the exhibits be confiscated by Ethiopia.
The pair, who had listened to the court hearing impassively, kept silent but looked shaken when the verdict was read out detailing their sentencing.
Outside the courtroom one of the lawyers for the defense Silsehi Ketsela was surrounded by journalists and anxious family members of the Swedish reporters and said he was working with his clients to an appeal and that a decision would be made soon while also commenting that the chances of an appeal succeeding are 50/50. An appeal has to be made within 15 days of sentencing.
However he would not be drawn into whether the clients would possibly ask for a pardon saying if or when a pardon is asked it is the government’s prerogative.
The story has become international news and some like the Pan European news channel Euronews reported that Swedish media reports had suggested the conviction and sentencing of the Swedish pair was a political act aimed at Sweden. One of the opposition leader’s Birtukan Mideksa who was released from prison in 2007 after a government pardon for her “role” in the 2005 post election violence was jailed in December 2008 reportedly after she recanted her pardon deal with the government while talking to opposition supporters in Sweden.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had subsequently in 2010 said that the Ethiopian government was closing its embassy in Stockholm, to focus on economically viable embassies around the world citing its concurrent decision to open an embassy in the South American country of Brazil.
France24 reported that the Swedish lawyer for the family of the sentenced Swedish pair said while the sentence was not as harsh as the prosecution had wanted it was too “brutal” for people trying to do their journalistic activities.
Aljazeera English had a different angle reporting that the mother of one of the sentenced Swedes saying that the sentence was not as harsh as she had expected and that the reduced sentence might be a sign that something might happen in the near future.
The sentence also elicited responses from concern to outright condemnation from governments’, international bodies, international Human rights Organizations and international press freedom watchdog groups.
The Swedish government echoing a strong but measured response given by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt after the Swedish journalists’ earlier conviction of the charges on December 21 gave a statement by way of Deputy Foreign Minister of Sweden, Frank Belfrage saying the sentencing was not unexpected but was extremely serious taken against the background of their journalistic mission.
The statement continued to read that every legal step will be taken in consultation with the imprisoned pair and their team of lawyers. They said they already had made contacts with the Ethiopian Government at a high level and their focus was on freeing them. It is also mulling measures in collaboration with other partners, among them the European Union and the US with a view to freeing them as soon as possible.
The EU’s spokesperson of High Representative Catherine Ashton also raised the issue of the sentencing of the pair under the Anti-Terrorism proclamations while acknowledging that they had entered the country illegally raised concern that their sentencing under terrorism related charges made them worry about the freedom of media and expression in Ethiopia.
The US state department made a somewhat nuanced concern stating that while acknowledging that the pair had not disputed them entering Ethiopia illegally it raised concern about their conviction on terrorism related charges which it said equated reporting about “terrorism” with “the support of terrorism”.
The statement further goes on to say that the US recognizes the authority of the judicial process in Ethiopia and respected the Ethiopian government’s legitimate concern about terrorism and the need to protect the country’s national security, it will continue its dialogue with the Ethiopian government on press freedoms and human rights, while continuing to monitor the ongoing trials of journalists on terrorism-related charges a subtle reference to other Ethiopian journalists in Ethiopia and in exile that have been charged with terrorism related charges.
International Press Freedom Watch dog groups such Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Human Rights Organizations like Amnesty International also condemned the Verdict.
Bereket Simon, minister at the Government Communications Affairs Office rejected criticisms of the conviction and sentencing of the Swedish pair saying the government has looked into the statement of the EU high commissioner and the Swedish government on a matter he said everybody knows was adjudicated by a court that found them guilty on two charges of illegal entry and that of assisting the terrorist organization ONLF professionally.
“They’re telling us that the pair have not engaged in criminal activities, rather they were caught and punished engaging in journalistic activities and duties, when in fact it’s not related to press freedom and journalistic activity as they were caught red handed with the act and sentenced by a court,” Bereket told Capital.
He further said when people in the EU and other developing countries break laws nobody raises issues, while in Ethiopia and other developing countries all the press organizations make an outcry;however the government as such stands by the decision of the court which has applied the rule of law.
Bereket wouldn’t be drawn on issues of pardon the pair may ask or other reports suggesting they could be pardoned by the Ethiopian government, saying the government’s only focus now is the implementation of the decision of the judiciary.