Swedish Photographer, Reporter Convicted in Ethiopian Show Trial (Update)

Posted by on Thursday December 22, 2011 | Photojournalism

An Ethiopian court has declared Swedish photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye guilty of supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally, according to an AFP report.

“Guilty as charged, period, unanimous vote,” the judge declared, according to the AFP story. The judge added that just because Persson and Schibbye are journalists doesn’t mean they didn’t engage in “criminal acts.”

“They have not been able to prove that they did not support terrorism,” the judge reportedly said.

Prosecutors are calling for 18-year jail terms, and sentencing is scheduled for December 27. (Editor’s note: See update, below.)

Persson and Schibye were arrested last July in the Ogaden region of the country. Ethiopian troops are currently fighting rebels in the oil-rich region and the government has barred journalists from the area. Schibbye and Persson, who is represented by the Swedish photo agency Kontinent, gained access to Ogaden with the help of a group of rebels that the Ethiopian government classifies as terrorists. Persson and Schibbye admitted at trial they had entered the country illegally, but vehemently denied they were aiding the rebels.

The ruling against them was handed down despite the evidence they presented to establish their bona fides as journalists, and despite prosecutors’ admission that video footage used against the journalists had been doctored (the footage reportedly was altered to make the journalists look as if they had been engaged in military training with the rebels).

Calling on Ethiopian authorities to release the journalists, Tom Rhodes, an East Africa consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), says Persson and Schibbye were just doing their jobs. “Their trial is politicized and designed to curb any reporting on the sensitive Ogaden area.”

Amnesty International and the Swedish government have also called upon Ethiopian authorities to release the two journalists.

CPJ says Persson and Schibbye aren’t the only journalists to be charged by the Ethiopian government with serving as messengers for “terrorist” groups. A total of ten journalists have been charged  “with trumped up terrorism charges” since June 2011, according CPJ.

Update: A court in Ethiopia sentence Persson and Schibbye to 11 years in prison on December 27, the Swedish Foreign Ministry announced. Though the sentence was lighter than the 18-year sentence the prosecutor had sought, a spokesperson maintained the innocence of the journalists. “It is not fair that they are sentenced since they are journalists on a journalistic mission.”

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