New York, December 27, 2011--In a highly politicized trial, two Swedish journalists have been sentenced in an Ethiopian court to 11-year jail terms after being convicted of supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally, according to news reports.
Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled today that Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye should serve "rigorous imprisonment," and said the verdict "should satisfy the goal of peace and security," Agence France-Presse reported. Last week, the journalists were convicted of illegally entering the eastern Somali-speaking Ogaden region, where government forces are battling separatists with the Ogaden National Liberation Front, according to news reports. The Ethiopian government classified the ONLF as a terrorist organization early this year and has restricted journalists from independently accessing the region.
Prosecutors had asked the judge for a jail term of 18 and a half years for Persson and Schibbye, who were tried under the country's far-reaching anti-terrorism law, news reports said. Human rights groups have said the law, which has been criticized by human rights monitors in the United Nations, is being used by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to crack down on dissent.
CPJ research found that fundamental principles of due process were violated during the journalists' trial, including the presumption of innocence, which is enshrined in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Ethiopia is a signatory. In addition, numerous accusatory public statements by state media and top government officials, including Zenawi, appeared to predetermine the outcome of the trial.
"The harsh sentences against Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye are an affront to justice and press freedom," said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. "With this politicized case, authorities showed they are intent on quashing coverage of important events in the Ogaden region. The Ethiopian government should unconditionally release Persson and Schibbye, and allow independent access to the Ogaden region."
Ethiopian officials have denied using the trial as politically motivated reprisal. "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?" Justice Ministry Spokesman Desalegn Deressa told Reuters. Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon accused international human rights groups of being "interested only in regime change," he told AFP. "We feel these people do not understand the concept of rule of law," Simon said.
The journalists' defense lawyers have not yet said whether they will appeal the sentences, news reports said.
In a statement today, European Union High Representative Spokesperson Catherine Ashton expressed "serious concern" about the judgment and the verdict, and said that "the sentencing on terrorism-related charges raises concerns about the freedom of media and expression in Ethiopia."
With seven journalists behind bars, including Persson and Schibbye, Ethiopia trails only Eritrea among Africa's worst jailers of journalists, according to CPJ research. Ethiopia's repression of the media has driven the world's largest number of journalists into exile over the last decade.