ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Ethiopia has pardoned two Swedish journalists jailed for assisting an outlawed rebel group and the pair are set for release alongside nearly 2,000 other prisoners, a government source said on Monday.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in July, 2011, after entering the country from neighboring Somalia with fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group.
“Some 1,900 prisoners have been pardoned and are scheduled to be released in the coming days. The Swedish journalists are part of the group,” the source told Reuters.
A news conference announcing the pardon was scheduled for 1000 EDT, the source said.
The government source said the pardon was approved before the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on August 20 after a long illness.
The journalists’ Swedish lawyer Thomas Olsson said: “All signals of that kind are aimed at raising hopes. But I don’t want to speculate on what will happen in the coming days.
“I want to await any decisions and relate to those when we know what is happening,” Olsson said.
Schibbye’s wife Linnea Schibbye said she was awaiting confirmation from Sweden of her husband’s pardon. The Swedish government has not made any comment.
Schibbye and Persson were sentenced to 11 years in jail by an Ethiopian court in December for helping and promoting the ONLF. Some of Ethiopia’s key Western allies, including the European Union and United States, said they were concerned over the verdict.
The pair were acquitted of terrorism related charges after the court found they were not involved in carrying out any attacks.
Addis Ababa often grants mass pardons and announces the decisions ahead of major holidays, in particular the Ethiopian New Year which is celebrated on September 11.
In February, Meles said he might pardon politicians and journalists imprisoned under anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2009. At the time, he dismissed opposition criticism he was using the law to clamp down on dissent.
Relations between Ethiopia and Sweden had become increasingly strained in the two years preceding the journalists’ court case. Some diplomatic sources said the Ethiopian government had been rankled by Sweden’s perceived backing of Ethiopia’s opposition.
Ethiopia’s opposition leader Birtukan Mideska, who was convicted of treason after violence broke out following a presidential poll in 2005 and then pardoned, was jailed again in 2008 after he had flown to Stockholm and publicly disputed Addis Ababa’s version of the pardon.
Birtukan was released in 2010, four months after presidential elections, and is now in the United States.
Sweden has also been critical of Ethiopia’s human rights record.
Ethiopia has detained about 150 people, including some 10 reporters, since legislation designed to tackle the activities of rebel groups that have links with al Qaeda and Eritrea was passed in 2009.
Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Editing by Richard Lough and Jane Merriman