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Ethiopia: Swedish Journalists Handed 11-Year Prison Sentence

An Ethiopian court handed prison sentences of 11 years on Tuesday 27 December, 2011 to Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, two Swedish journalists on trial for supporting rebel forces in the country. The sentences are shorter than the minimum of 15 years the judge Shemsu Sirgaga had previously called for on 21 December.

No relatives were present in the courtroom when the sentences were handed down. The announcement caused a small crowd of protesters to gather outside the Ethiopian embassy in Stockholm [sv].

Neither the Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, nor the foreign minister, Carl Bildt, commented the sentence on Tuesday, but many others spoke out on Twitter.

Johan Persson (left) and Martin Schibbye. Images © Kontinent Agency AB, used with permission.

Johan Persson (left) and Martin Schibbye. Images © Kontinent Agency AB, used with permission.

Jonas Nordling, chair of the Swedish Union of Journalists, commented:

@jonasnordling: The Swedish government now has something to prove. Will they stand up for journalism today? #EthiopiaSwedes

Josefin Hammarstedt demanded a ministerial statement:

@Klockarbarbro: Sorry. But are the prime minister and the foreign minister are declining to comment the sentence? DECLINING? Why? #EthiopiaSwedes

Anders Jorle, spokesman for the Swedish foreign ministry, commented:

[The sentence] is regrettable in light of their journalistic assignment. The Swedish government's view is known, among other things through the prime minister's statement last week.

Schibbye and Persson's defence team, which consists of one Swedish and two Ethiopian lawyers, now has until 10 January to appeal the decision. An alternate route is to plead for clemency with the Ethiopian state.

Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights who specializes in Ethiopia, told [sv] Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter about the journalists’ chances of pleading for clemency:

A clemency process is an informal political negotiation once the verdict has been handed down. That would be the easy way out.

It is relatively unthinkable that the Supreme Court, which is even closer to the government and more political in its judgements, would acquit Schibbye and Persson.

A plea for clemency would mean Schibbye and Persson recognize their guilt in supporting terrorism, a charge they denied during the trial.

Schibbye and Persson were found guilty of entering Ethiopia illegally and of supporting terrorism in the country. The pair had entered Ethiopia from Somalia embedded with Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) forces on 1 July. The Ogaden province has long been the scene of a bloody conflict between the ONLF and the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopian government, headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has been criticized for of its recently-adopted “deeply flawed anti-terorrism act”. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have claimed the law is used for “stifling peaceful dissent”.

Over 100 journalists and opposition leaders are currently awaiting trial under the new law. Among them are Reeyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye, who were detained six months ago.

Karin Schibbye, the mother of Martin, told Swedish public television SVT [sv] that it is now down to the Swedish and Ethiopian governments to find common ground in the case of Schibbye and Persson:

The government has the solution. A negotiation process has to start. I think that the issue Johan and Martin have been caught in is much larger than just them, that it's a game being played by our two governments. How the government acts going forward will be decisive in the outcome of this issue.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia trails only Eritrea among Africa's worst jailers of journalists.

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