ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Ethiopian court sentenced two Swedish journalists on Tuesday to 11 years in prison for helping and promoting the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group and entering the country illegally.
The accusations and last week’s guilty verdicts have provoked anger in Sweden and suggestions in the media the case has taken on a political dimension.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in July after they entered the Ogaden province from Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region with ONLF fighters.
“The court has sentenced both defendants to 11 years. We have heard both cases ... and we believe this is an appropriate sentence,” Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court.
Shemsu said the convictions warranted a sentence of up to 14 and a half years, but noted the freelance journalists’ good behaviour. The prosecution had asked for 18 and a half years.
“It wasn’t an entirely unexpected sentence. It is regrettable in light of their journalistic assignment,” Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Anders Jorle said. “The Swedish government’s view is known, among other things through the prime minister’s statement last week.”
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said last week Sweden was seriously concerned about the judgment and the journalists should be freed as soon as possible.
The two Swedes had also been charged with terrorism but were acquitted in November on that count, as the court did not believe they were involved in carrying out any attacks. They did admit to crossing the border without a permit.
Schibbye and Persson looked at the judge without expression as the sentence was read out and then translated by their lawyer. No family members were present.
One of the journalists’ lawyers said his clients were weighing the option of an appeal, but that for now there was no talk of pleading for clemency.
“We are only talking about the possibility of appealing for the time being, which follows judicial procedure,” defence lawyer Sileshi Ketsela told Reuters.
Schibbye and Petersson’s Swedish lawyer told Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT that the pair were innocent reporters doing their job in a “closed area” and denounced the sentence as “completely unacceptable”.
“This is judgement that represents a threat against foreign correspondents, against journalists who are trying to do their job,” Thomas Olsson told the public channel in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.
About a dozen protesters gathered outside Ethiopia’s consulate in Stockholm, waving Swedish and Ethiopian flags and chanting “Free Martin Schibbye! Free Johan Persson! Free all political and journalist prisoners!”
“The government does not respect the rule of law that is made in parliament. This is our reality,” said 30-year-old Nebiyu Desta Yiman, who is seeking political asylum in Sweden. “These two, and thousands of others, should be released.”
Persson’s father told Swedish news agency TT the government had promised to contact the Ethiopian government.
“We also expect the government to contact the European Union and the United States, since these (countries) have given their support to Johan and Martin,” Kjell Persson said.
Sweden’s prime minister has said Sweden was making high-level contact with the Ethiopian government in the matter.
This year, Ethiopia has detained more than 150 people, including reporters, in a crackdown the opposition says is designed to stifle moves towards more democracy. The government vehemently denies such accusations.
Diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Sweden have become increasingly strained in the last couple of years, analysts say.
Ethiopia’s opposition leader Birtukan Mideska, who was convicted of treason after violence broke out following a presidential poll in 2005 and then pardonned, was jailed again n in 2008 after flying to Stockholm and publicly disputing Addis Ababa’s version of the pardon.
Birtukan was released in 2010, four months after presidential elections, and is now in the United States.
“The authorities in Addis Ababa seemed to have been rankled with the perceived backing of Ethiopia’s opposition by Stockholm,” A Western diplomat, who declined to be named, said.
Sweden has also been critical of Ethiopia’s human rights track record. Addis Ababa said in 2010 it planned to shut its mission in Stockholm as there was no significant development cooperation or trade ties between the two countries.
A spokesman for Ethiopia’s justice ministry said claims the trial had been politicised were unfounded.
“How can there be a political motive when prosecutors provided evidence throughout the trial and the defendants themselves admitted to entering the country illegally with rebels?” spokesman Desalegn Deressa told Reuters.