Ethiopia jails Swedish journalists for 11 years

ADDIS ABABA, December 27, 2011 (AFP) - An Ethiopian court on Tuesday sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in jail for supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally, sparking widespread condemnation.

"The sentence should be punishment of 11 years imprisonment," Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court in the Amharic language through a translator.

"This sentence should satisfy the goal of peace and security," he added.

Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia's Ogaden region on July 1 in the company of rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) after entering Ethiopia from Somalia.

Both Swedes showed no emotion at the sentencing, as if in shock, according to an AFP reporter in the court. A defence lawyer patted Schibbye on the arm as the sentence was read out.

Defence lawyer Abebe Balcha said they would decide later in the week whether to appeal.

"I am not satisfied, as a lawyer for the defendants, I do not agree with the decision," Abebe said outside the court.

Sweden has asked the United States and the EU for help "to ensure their liberation as soon as possible," state secretary for foreign affairs Frank Belfrage told the TT news agency.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton voiced "serious concern." The Swedish Union of Journalists condemned the "political sentence" and called on Stockholm to intervene.

Judges had initially sentenced the pair to 11 years and three months for supporting terrorism and a further three years and three months for entering the country illegally.

"The court has actually passed 14 years six months first, and then mitigated it down," Abebe said, noting the sentence was reduced "because of the reputation of the defendants and also that they have never been involved in crime before."

Johan's father, Kjell Persson, told AFP on the phone from Sweden: "It was a tough time for us, but we met Johan four or five times and he's taken it well, it's good for us to see that."

The two men were convicted last Wednesday and prosecutors had called for a maximum sentence of 18 years and six months in prison.

Their sentencing drew heavy criticism from rights groups, with Amnesty International calling for their immediate release, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF - Reporters Sans Frontieres) slamming the "deplorable" sentence.

Human Rights Watch denounced the "sham convictions" as well as Ethiopia's anti-terrorism law, which it said was used to "suppress the legitimate work of the media." It noted that 29 Ethiopian journalists and opposition members were also on trial under the same law.

However, after Tuesday's sentencing, Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon said: "We live by the decision and we fully accept the decision," dismissing the concerns of rights groups.

"These are the same organisations who are interested only in regime change. We feel these people do not understand the concept of rule of law."

Both journalists had admitted contact with the ONLF and to entering Ethiopia illegally, but rejected terrorism charges, which included accusations that they had received weapons training.

The ONLF, who also demand the release of the "innocent journalists," has been fighting for independence of the remote southeastern Ogaden region since 1984, claiming they have been marginalised by Addis Ababa.

"If the regime deals with neutral journalists in this way, the world can understand now the conditions that people in Ogaden and Ethiopia are subjected to," it said in a statement.

Addis Ababa has blocked almost all international media access to Ogaden, where oil and gas reserves have brought both hopes of wealth but also fears of increased conflict.

Persson said their meeting the ONLF contacts had been for professional reasons only, as part of an investigation into the activities of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil.