ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - An Ethiopian court found two Swedish journalists guilty on Wednesday of helping and promoting the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group, and entering the Horn of Africa nation 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 a team of ONLF fighters.
Sentencing is due next week and the prosecution asked for a combined sentence of 18 years 6 months for both charges. Sileshi Ketsela, one of the defense lawyers, said they would now discuss with their clients about whether to appeal.
Sweden said it was very concerned about the verdict and was making contact with the Ethiopian government at a high level.
“The government takes a very serious view of the verdict today,” Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said in statement.
“Our starting point is and remains that they have been in the country on a journalistic assignment. They should, as soon as possible, be released so that they can be reunited with their families in Sweden,” he said.
Addis Ababa has blacklisted the ONLF as a terrorist group, and its recently-adopted anti-terrorism legislation outlaws promotion of the insurgents’ activities.
The two Swedes had also been charged with terrorism but were acquitted in November on that count as the court did not believe they were involved in carrying out any attacks. They did admit to crossing the border without a permit.
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court the two journalists had entered Ethiopia illegally under the pretext of investigating the impact of potential oil discoveries and production in the region on the local population.
“Instead they accompanied the ONLF into the country and were caught alongside the rebels. This contradicts their claims,” he said in handing down the guilty verdict.
The freelance journalists say they were covering the ONLF as a news story and deny assisting their cause.
During the November trial, prosecutors screened a three-hour video they said was obtained from one of the Swedes’ laptops, showing footage of them hoisting rifles alongside armed men and being briefed over a map on how to infiltrate the region.
The editor in chief of Filter, the magazine where they worked, called the journalists “political prisoners.”
“I have both a pessimist and an optimist within. For the pessimist, it was really expected, but for optimist it was a shock,” Mattias Gransson told Reuters in Sweden.
“When the judge read out the grounds it sounded positive, he had virtually nothing against them. Everything he said was speaking for an acquittal, and then he found them guilty anyway. This indicates they are political prisoners and nothing else.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Dickson and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm; Editing by David Clarke and Peter Graff