* Swedes arrested with rebels in July
* Prosecutors ask for 18 year 6 month sentence
* Journalists deny assisting rebel cause
* Sweden in contact with Ethiopian govt, wants release
* Editor calls journalists “political prisoners” (Adds lawyer in para 12, Human Rights Watch in paras 17-18)
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, Dec 21 (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 defence 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.
Thomas Olsson, a lawyer for Schibbye and Persson in Sweden, described the verdict as “deeply regrettable” and said it was a “serious attack on freedom of speech and freedom of the press”.
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 Göransson 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.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the verdict was worrying for other Ethiopian journalists facing similar charges.
“The convictions of two Swedish journalists under the ridiculous anti-terrorism law is the confirmation that the chief purpose of the law’s clause on ‘supporting terrorism’ is to suppress the legitimate work of journalists,” HRW’s senior researcher, Ben Rawlence, said. (Additional reporting by Daniel Dickson and Johan Ahlander in Stockholm; Editing by David Clarke and Matthew Jones)