Swedish journalists risk years of imprisonment in Ethiopia

Two Swedish journalists are accused by the Ethiopian authorities of aiding and cooperating with “terrorist organisations”. They were apprehended while doing their work in the Ogaden region, where separatist movements are involved in an armed struggle with the central governement in Addis Abeba. MO* participated in the opening session of a high profile court case.

In July, the Swedish photographer Johan Persson and journalist Martin Schibbye were arrested in the Ethiopian Ogaden province, bordering Somalia. They were in the company of ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front) troops, fighting for an independent Ogaden. Twee ONLF members were arrested together with the Swedish journalists, scores of them were killed during the confrontation with the Ethiopian security forces preceding the arrests.

Persson and Schibbiye got away from the confrontation with minor wounds, but have been held captive since, accused of ‘association with and aiding of a terrorist organisation’.

Tuesday October 18, a first hearing in the court case against the two journalists was held in the Ethiopian capital Addis Abeba. The session was adjourned to Thursday October 20, because the two other accused, the ONLF-members, failed to present a lawyer. MO* participated in the session on Thursday, when the Court appointed state lawyers for the ONLF-members, and spoke to a range of obserbvers.

The session was open to the public, though photo and videocamera’s were banned from the premises.Persson and Schibbye were standing in front, on the right hand side. They appeared healthy but slightly bored in their nice suits. The judge held a long speech in Amhara, wich was translated as a two minute statement. The rather small courtroom held a public with around 25 Europeans. ‘There is extensive solidarity among European embassies’, one of the diplomats at the Belgian Embassy told me earlier that morning on the phone. ‘But given the sensitivity of the case, we agreed that only the Swedish Embassy would speak publicly.’

Swedish Ambassador Jens Odlander does not want to sound either pessimistic or optimistic: ‘We have taken note of the hearing today. The journalists’ lawyers are unhappy because the evidence in the case will only be shown “at exhibitum” during next session. They would much prefer to have acces to the material. The Swedish government still maintains its position that the Ethiopian police made a mistake by arresting both men on the ground of terrorism. But we continue to hope for a solution because we feel there is space for that. The political communication channels with the Etiopian government are open and functional.’

Through their lawyers, Persson and Schibbye admitted to have entered Ethiopian territory illegaly, for wich they offered excuses. They continue to plead innocent vis-à-vis the accusation of terrorism. Yonas Merga, senio journalist of the Ethiopian newspaper The Report, explains that the Ethopian government introduced the anti-terrorism law only five months ago.

This legislation, modelled after the British anti-terrorism law but tuned to fit the Ethiopian context, is specifically targetting journalists, says Merga. ‘The law says that a journalist who is terrorizin the people, or incites people to acts of terrorism, can be condemned to twenty years or lifelong imprisonment, or even capital punishment.’ The people, me points out, will never file a complaint about feeling terrorized by an article, hence it will fall to the governement alone to decide wich articles or publications will fall under the stipulations of this law.

Thursday was also the opening of the Parliamentary year in Ethiopia. The prime minister announced in his opening speech thathe would, between now and the end of the month, strike hard against journalists who work for movements such as the ONLF (Ogaden), the OLF (Oromi) or the Ginbet 7 (wich originated in the post-electoral protests in 2005). ‘The trouble is that one is not judged by his work, but by his background’, complains Merga, himself an Oromi.

A new hearing on the Persson Schibbye case will be held on November 1. The prosecuters will make their case after which the judge will declare the evidence admissible or not. The chance on acquittal for the journalists is estimated to be very low.

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