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article imagePrisoners of Conscience: Swedish Journalists Jailed In Ethiopia

By Yukio Strachan     Dec 29, 2011 in World
An Ethiopian court sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in prison. But the men argue they were just doing their job as journalists.
Waving Swedish and Ethiopian flags in the air, protesters in Stockholm expressed outrage on Tuesday when an Ethiopian court sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in jail for attempting to investigate human rights abuses in the closed region of Ogaden in Ethiopia, according to Reuters.
Ethiopian troops captured the journalists — Martin Schibbye, 31, and Johan Persson, 29, — on July 1 after entering the area embedded with rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a group regarded as terrorists by the Ethiopian government, the Associated Press reports.
Upon entering Ogaden, a gun fight ensued between Ethiopian troops and ONLF fighters, leading to Mr. Schibbye and Mr. Persson's arrest. The Ogaden National Liberation Front has been fighting for independence from the tyrannical regime since 1984.
“We believe this is an appropriate sentence," said Judge Shemsu Sirgaga to a packed courtroom.
However, Abebe Balcha, an attorney for the journalists' disagreed. “I am not satisfied, as a lawyer for the defendants, I do not agree with the decision,” he said
Thomas Olsson, the reporters' Swedish attorney called the 11-year jail verdict “very brutal”.
“This is about two innocent journalists who have tried to do their work.”
Amnesty International also criticized the court's decision.
"There is nothing to suggest that the two men entered Ethiopia with any intention other than conducting their legitimate work as journalists," said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher.
“We believe that these men are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate work,”she said.
Both journalists, in court, pleaded guilty to entering the country without visas in violation of Ethiopian migration laws. However, the pair denied all forms of terrorism.
Mr. Persson and Mr. Schibbye, who work as freelance journalists at the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent, testified that entering Ethiopia with the rebel group was the only way to gain access to a region banned from the eyes and ears of journalists.
Reporter Martin Schibbye sentenced to 11 years in jail by the Ethiopian regime
Reporter Martin Schibbye sentenced to 11 years in jail by the Ethiopian regime
Kontinent Photojournalist Agency
“Your honour, I am a journalist and my job is to gather news,” said Mr. Schibbye in an October hearing. “I am guilty of entering Ethiopia illegally, but I am not guilty of the other activities I am charged of.”
"I entered the country illegally and nothing else," Mr. Persson added. “I came to Ethiopia for one purpose, that's to do my job as a journalist.”
Prosecutors argued that a video showing the defendants holding rifles proved that the ONLF had given the journalists weapons training.
“This video doesn't show some bizarre training with weapons in a parking lot, it shows another day at the office for a foreign correspondent,” Mr. Schibbye told the judge.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
But Judge Shemsu Sirgaga said the two “have not been able to prove that they did not support terrorism.”
International media groups called attention to Judge Sirgaga's remarks as a symptom of a deeper problem in the region.
“Instead of proving their guilt, the judge accuses them of failing to prove their innocence. This is back-to-front," wrote the secretary general of Reporters without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard.
"We have documented violations of due process and the politicization of their trial," the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, adding that the government pronounced the two guilty even before the trial started.
Said Kontinent's Fredric Alm : " It's still a political verdict; it's not a real trial. It is the [Ethiopian] prime minister who has decided.”
'Terrorism' Is In the Eye of the Beholder
In an October interview with Norway's Aftenposten newspaper, Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, said prosecutors had video clips of the Swedish journalists “training with the rebels”.
Mr. Meles, told the paper that the detained journalists, who have worked for several established Swedish newspapers and magazines, were simply not “journalists.” On the contrary, he saw them as “messenger boys of a terrorist organization.”
“Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter the country with a terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, participating in fighting in which a terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don't know what terrorism is,” he said.
It is the [Ethiopian] prime minister who has decided.
Photojournalist Johan Persson sentenced to 11 years in jail by the Ethiopian regime
Photojournalist Johan Persson sentenced to 11 years in jail by the Ethiopian regime
Kontinent Photojournalist Agency
Meanwhile, options available to the defendants to fight for their innocence are few. They can appeal to higher court which can take up to two years, while the alternative, asking for a pardon, has its own consequences.
“The latter means that they have to admit the crime and confess yourself guilty, which of course is a hard thing to do when you regard yourself innocent,” Attorney Olsson said. “That’s why an appeal is natural, but it’s a tough decision. That’s what Martin and Johan are up against in the coming 15 days.”
"On the other side you have to think of the chances to survive 11 years in an Ethiopian prison," said Fredric Alm at Kontinent: it "could effectively be a death sentence for them."
More about human rights abuses, Ethiopian troops, Journalist jailed, Terrorism, Swedish
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