Anger as Ethiopia jails Swedish pair for 11 years

Call for international action on appeal as court convicts journalists of supporting terrorism

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The Independent Online

Ethopia has been widely condemned for jailing two Swedish journalists for 11 years for supporting terrorism after they were arrested while travelling with a rebel group in the restive east of the country.

Rights groups have criticised the harsh sentences for Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, who were caught six months ago after illegally entering the Ogaden region of Ethiopia to investigate alleged abuses by security forces. The area is home to the country's Somali minority and off-limits to outside observers as the government continues a brutal counter-insurgency against rebel group the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Authorities in Addis Ababa accused the Swedes of promoting the ONLF but supporters say the government is making an example of the pair to discourage others from reporting in the Ogaden region. The ethnic Somali group is banned in Ethiopia, where it is classified as a terrorist organisation. Outlawed groups around the world regularly invite foreign journalists to travel with them in order to give their side of the story.

"There is nothing to suggest that the two men entered Ethiopia with any intention other than conducting their legitimate work as journalists," said Claire Beston of Amnesty International.

Despite international pleas for leniency, an Ethiopian court told the Swedes yesterday that they would face "rigorous imprisonment". "We have heard both cases... and we believe this is an appropriate sentence," said presiding Judge Shemsu Sirgaga.

Sweden said it was unsurprised by the verdict and that the government was making high-level contacts with Ethiopia to have the men freed. Speaking in Stockholm, Kjell Persson, father of one of the imprisoned reporters, called on Ethiopia's Western allies to put pressure on Addis Ababa over the case. "We expect the government to contact the European Union and the United States, since these [countries] have given their support to Johan and Martin," he told local media.

The Swedes' lawyers are considering whether to appeal the verdict or make a plea for clemency, which might see their sentences significantly reduced. This would typically involve making a full confession of guilt and has been used to humiliate political opponents in the past.

Ethiopia's support for the war on terror has made it the US's key ally in the Horn of Africa and muted criticism of its increasingly poor human rights record. It has won Washington's backing for its military operations in neighbouring Somalia and hosts a US drone base used to strike Islamic militants in the region.

Relations between Sweden and Ethiopia were soured when Stockholm welcomed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa in 2008 after she was temporarily released from prison in her home country. She was rearrested on return to Ethiopia and released only after last year's elections had passed.

A small protest was staged outside the Ethiopian Consulate in Stockholm yesterday in the wake of the sentences. Among the protesters was Nebiyu Desta Yiman, 30, an Ethiopian seeking political asylum in Sweden. "The government does not respect the rule of law that is made in parliament," he told Reuters. "These two, and thousands of others, should be released."