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The Ethiopian government has given pardon to the two Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in connection to the New Year. This was welcome news for the family, Swedish nationals and for the entire foreign community.
It was also a measure that helps improve the Ethiopian image which is negatively portrayed by the international human rights organizations as a state that arrest journalists in contravention of the country’s constitution.
The two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were convicted by the Federal High Court third criminal bench on December 21 of two separate counts, for charges of illegally entering the country and availing their professional services for a terrorist organization, namely the Ogaden People’s Liberation Front (ONLF). They were sentenced to serve 11 years in prison by the court in the presence of the Swedish diplomatic and journalistic community and the defendant’s relatives.
The court confirmed 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. At the time of the court procedure the convicted admitted that they had a plan to observe the impact in the area of the Swedish oil company “Lund oil” which had been incorporated into Africa Oil Company in Ethiopia. They 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.
The two Swedish journalists were pardoned at the end. Clemency is a tradition in Ethiopia. It is a pleasure for Ethiopians to show forgiveness for the nationals of a friendly country like Sweden, the country that directly participated in the development activities of Ethiopia. A number of schools have been constructed by the Swedish fund since Ethiopia regained independence in 1941 after a brief five year occupation by Italian Fascists.
The two journalists act may be considered very courageous in their journalistic career. If one is not able to get the proper information from the official source it is an accepted norm to go behind the lines and reveal what is going on in the war zone. But it is a dangerous venture. The former rebels, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front used to invite journalists during the armed struggle against the Derg. Photos and films were dispatched to the world from the war zone areas that show atrocities of the former regime. What they tried to do so was the duplication of that feat. Whatever the case may be, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye are now free from the Ethiopian jail.
What is left? The journalists may produce articles about what they saw in prison. Books can be written showing the miserable life around the Kaliti prison. This is on the part of freed journalists. But on the part of the government a huge task is awaiting. That is pardoning Ethiopian journalists arrested such as the dissident blogger and journalist Eskinder Nega and Reiyot Alemu who are convicted of terrorism charges. These were people living in the capital city Addis Ababa in a residence house registered by the city administration. Their activities were well known and easily monitored. There is no terrorist organization like the ONLF that actively operates in Addis. They were not caught red-handed with terrorists. They were not put under arrest after a gun battle with the Police force or the Ethiopian army.
Though the court passed up to 18 year prison terms after considering the evidences submitted by the prosecutor, it is time to give them a pardon following the long held Ethiopian tradition of forgiveness.
It is timely because a new Prime Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn was officially appointed by the parliament on Friday. For him giving pardon is a sign of a good gesture. Starting to work in this high government office with clemency paves the way to establish a positive image in the society. Freeing the Swedish journalists brought praise from the international community and freeing the Ethiopian journalists will surely bring praise from the domestic community. At the end of the day it is the people of Ethiopia who will determine the fate of the country.
For the Swedish journalists their government was heard loudly. On the day of the verdict the Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt released a statement saying the government is seriously concerned about the judgment. He called for an immediate release of his citizens. There is no doubt that there was heavy pressure from the government of Sweden.
The Ethiopian journalists do not have a Prime Minister other than the newly appointed Prime Minister Haile-Mariam. The Ethiopian people will be happy when their sons and daughters are allowed to breathe free air without condition. In addition to this, freeing them will be a great opportunity for the new Premier to open a new era of hope and optimism among the Ethiopian people.
Be aware that forgiveness doesn’t stop half way. Giving a pardon to foreigners and ignoring the nationals is not only a double standard but it is also unfair treatment for people arrested under similar terrorist charges. In effect terrorism aims at the destruction of humankind and development. If journalists are engaged in this disgraceful act they have to be punished as per the law of the land. Keeping a close eye on the secret activities of the terrorists is commendable.
For now the call: in a situation where the ground for terrorism to grow is extremely negligible giving a pardon for Ethiopian journalists convicted of terrorism is timely.