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Ethiopia jails two Swedish journalists for aiding rebels

An Ethiopian court sentenced two Swedish journalists on Tuesday to 11 years in prison for helping an outlawed rebel group and entering the country illegally, a judge said.
Image: Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye
Journalists Johan Persson, left, and Martin Schibbye were sentenced to 11 years in Ethiopian jail for supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally. The two say they had been gathering news about a Swedish oil company exploring the region for oil. Jonas Gratzer / Kontinent A / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

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, a judge said.

Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in July after they entered Ethiopia's Ogaden province from Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region with a team of 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.

Both journalists looked at the judge without expression as the sentence was being read out and then translated by their defense lawyer, a witness said. No family members were present.

There are 29 Ethiopian journalists, opposition members, and others on trial under the anti-terrorism law, according to Human Rights Watch.

The international community has closely followed the terror trial.

Human Rights Watch has called the trial unfair and contends there was no credible evidence that the men supported terrorism or entered the country illegally to conduct subversive activities.

"The sham convictions ... confirm that the chief purpose of the anti-terrorism law's clause on 'supporting terrorism' is to suppress the legitimate work of the media," . "The vague and broad anti-terrorism law was open to abuse and it is being abused."

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.

The sentencing is also likely to cause outcry in Sweden, where last week's guilty verdicts provoked anger in Swedish media amid accusations the case had taken on a political dimension.

The journalists' lawyer 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," defense lawyer Sileshi Ketsela told Reuters.

'My job is to gather news'
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.

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.