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updated 12/21/2011 11:49:53 AM ET 2011-12-21T16:49:53

A court in Ethiopia convicted two Swedish journalists Wednesday of supporting terrorism after the pair illegally entered the country with an ethnic Somali rebel group.

The pair, who now face up to 15 years in prison at their sentencing next week, have said they were gathering news at the time of their arrest.

However, Judge Shemsu Sirgaga said that was "very unlikely," accusing the Ogaden National Liberation Front of organizing the Swedes' journey starting in London via Kenya and Somalia into Ethiopia. Outlawed groups in many countries frequently facilitate the travels of reporters in order to have their version of events told.

Ethiopian troops captured Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye six months ago during a clash with rebels in Ethiopia's restive Somali region in the country's east, a no-go area for reporters. Ethiopia considers the rebel group a terrorist organization, and it is very difficult for journalists to gain access to the region. Rights groups say that is so abuses there are not exposed.

The chairman of the Swedish Union of Journalists, Jonas Nordling, deplored the conviction, saying it is clearly aimed at deterring reporters from investigating alleged human rights abuses in the Ogaden.

"This is a political verdict," Nordling said. "There is no evidence to support that this is a terror crime."

"They are two established reporters who have used accepted journalistic methods to enter the area," he said, adding Ethiopian officials "absolutely do not want to see an open examination of what happens in the Ogaden area."

Persson and Schibbye are both freelance contributors to the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent. Schibbye is also a writer. The two regularly had their work published in national newspapers in Sweden and Norway.

The pair said they had been gathering news about a Swedish oil company that is exploring Ethiopia's Somali region for oil. Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was a member of the board of the company — Lundin Petroleum — between 2000 and 2006. He left the board when he was appointed foreign minister.

Bildt said on Twitter that Sweden expresses "grave concern" over Wednesday's verdict. "We will continue to work to set them free," he said.

The Ethiopian judge said that "journalism demands impartiality and balance but doesn't require violating the laws of a sovereign country."

"The court finds the defendants guilty as charged in a unanimous vote," he said.

The Swedes' lawyers, their family and the Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia left the court without making any comments.

In Sweden, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said the Swedish government will immediately contact high-level officials in the Ethiopian government.

"Our starting point is and remains that they have been in the country on a journalistic mission. They should be freed as soon as possible to be able to reunite with their families in Sweden," Reinfeldt said.

Bildt later told reporters in Stockholm that Sweden had sent a "clear and vocal" statement about its concerns to the Ethiopian government.

"Ethiopia is an important country and we do have an interest in long-term good relations with Ethiopia," he said. "I fail to see that the Ethiopian government would have an interest in what would be a long-lasting and serious negative impact on our bilateral relations."

Persson and Schibbye have acknowledged that they entered Ethiopia illegally.

"Your honor, I am a journalist and my job is to gather news. I am guilty of entering Ethiopia illegally, but I am not guilty of the other activities I am charged of," Schibbye said during the case's preliminary hearing in October.

"I entered the country illegally and nothing else," Persson added.

The international community has closely followed the terror trial against the Swedes. Rights groups and diplomats say Ethiopia's anti-terrorism proclamation restricts freedom of expression and is used as a tool to crack down on dissent.

The rights group Amnesty International said after the verdict that there was no evidence to suggest that the two Swedes were doing anything but carrying out work as reporters.

"We believe that these men are prisoners of conscience, prosecuted because of their legitimate work," said Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher. "The overly broad provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation allow the authorities to criminalize the exercise of freedom of expression."

___

Associated Press writer Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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