ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Ethiopian court sentenced two Swedish journalists on Tuesday to 11 years in prison each for helping and promoting the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front rebel group and entering the country illegally.
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 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.
Sweden’s State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Frank Belfrage said his country would keep up efforts to free the two men by contacting Ethiopian ministers and consulting with the United States and the European Union.
“We of course take this sentence extremely seriously in light of the fact our assumption throughout has been that they were there on a journalistic mission,” Belfrage told Reuters.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said after the journalists were found guilty of the charges last week that Sweden was seriously concerned and the journalists should be freed as soon as possible.
Both the European Union and the United States have also said they are concerned by the case.
“Their sentencing on terrorism related charges raises concerns about the freedom of media and expression in Ethiopia,” said a statement from the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The Swedes were acquitted in November on charges of terrorism after the court found they were not involved in carrying out any attacks. They did say they had crossed the border without a permit.
The two have said they were in the region to investigate activities in the Ogaden of an oil explorer which in 2009 bought licenses in Ethiopia from Lundin Petroleum (LUPE.ST). Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was a board member of Lundin Oil and its successor Lundin Petroleum between 2000 and 2006.
Judge Shemsu said the convictions warranted a sentence of up to 14 and a half years, but noted the journalists’ good behaviour. The prosecution had asked for 18 and a half years.
Schibbye and Persson looked at the judge without expression as the sentence was read out and then translated by their lawyer. No family members were present.
One of the journalists’ lawyers, Sileshi Ketsela, told Reuters they were weighing the option of an appeal, but that for now there was no talk of pleading for clemency.
About a dozen protesters gathered outside Ethiopia’s consulate in Stockholm, waving Swedish and Ethiopian flags and chanting “Free Martin Schibbye! Free Johan Persson! Free all political and journalist prisoners!”
“The government does not respect the rule of law that is made in parliament. This is our reality,” said 30-year-old Nebiyu Desta Yiman, who is seeking political asylum in Sweden.
This year, Ethiopia has detained more than 150 people, including reporters, in a crackdown the opposition says is designed to stifle moves towards more democracy. The government denies such accusations.
Diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Sweden have become increasingly strained in the last couple of years, analysts say.
Ethiopia’s opposition leader Birtukan Mideska, who was convicted of treason after violence broke out following a presidential poll in 2005 and then pardonned, was jailed again n in 2008 after flying to Stockholm and publicly disputing Addis Ababa’s version of the pardon. She was released again in 2010.
“The authorities in Addis Ababa seemed to have been rankled with the perceived backing of Ethiopia’s opposition by Stockholm,” said a Western diplomat, who declined to be named.
Sweden has also been critical of Ethiopia’s human rights track record.
A spokesman for Ethiopia’s justice ministry said reports the trial had been politicised were unfounded.
“How can there be a political motive when prosecutors provided evidence throughout the trial and the defendants themselves admitted to entering the country illegally with rebels?” spokesman Desalegn Deressa told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Mia Shanley and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Richard Lough and Anna Ringstrom; Editing by David Clarke and Andrew Heavens