ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — A court in Ethiopia on Tuesday sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in prison on charges of supporting terrorism after the two illegally entered the country with an ethnic Somali rebel group in a case that has been criticized by media rights groups.
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled that the two freelance journalists — Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye — will serve "rigorous imprisonment" following their convictions last week.
Ethiopian troops had captured Persson and Schibbye six months ago during a clash with rebels in eastern Ethiopia's restive Somali region, a no-go area for reporters. Ethiopia considers the rebel group a terrorist organization, and it is very difficult for journalists to gain access to the region. Rights groups say that is so abuses there are not exposed.
The judge has accused the Ogaden National Liberation Front — or ONLF — of organizing the Swedes' journey starting in London. Outlawed groups in many countries frequently facilitate the travels of reporters in order to have their version of events told.
The chairman of the Swedish Union of Journalists, Jonas Nordling, has said that the court's decision was aimed at deterring reporters from investigating alleged human rights abuses in the Ogaden. Nordling said there was no evidence to support the journalists' conviction on terror charges.
Persson and Schibbye are both freelance contributors to the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent. Schibbye is also a writer. The two regularly had their work published in national newspapers in Sweden and Norway.
The pair said they had been gathering news about a Swedish oil company that is exploring Ethiopia's Somali region for oil. Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, was a member of the board of the company — Lundin Petroleum — between 2000 and 2006, and left the board when he was appointed foreign minister.
Persson and Schibbye have acknowledged that they entered Ethiopia illegally.
Swedish government officials have said that the two Swedes were on a "journalistic mission," and have pushed for the two to be freed.
The international community has closely followed the terror trial against the Swedes. Rights groups and diplomats say Ethiopia's anti-terrorism proclamation restricts freedom of expression and is used as a tool to crack down on dissent.