In addition to being found guilty of supporting a terrorist group, the two Swedes were also convicted of visa violations for entering the country illegally, with the
prosecution calling for a maximum sentence of 18 years and six months in prison.
“Guilty as charged, period, unanimous vote. They have shown that they are esteemed journalists, but we cannot conclude that someone with a good reputation doesn’t engage in criminal acts,” Judge Shemsu Sirgaga told the court.
According to the court, the Swedes “used their profession as a cover to act on behalf of the terrorists”.
Both the freelancers were also found guilty of entering Ethiopia illegally.
“They have not been able to prove that they did not support terrorism,” Shemsu said, speaking in Ethiopia’s Amharic language.
Both reporters appeared expressionless at the verdict, according to an AFP reporter in the court, but it was not clear whether they understood the judge since they had no translator.
Later on Wednesday morning, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt commented on the ruling via Twitter.
“Sweden expresses grave concern over hard sentence against Swedish journalists in Ethiopia. We will continue to work to set them free,” wrote Bildt.
Reporter Schibbye and photographer Persson — both freelancers — were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region on July 1st after entering the country from Somalia.
They were arrested after a gun battle erupted between Ethiopian troops and ONLF fighters, and are charged with supporting a terrorist group and entering the country illegally.
Prosecution lawyers called for a sentence of 13 years for the terrorism charges, and a further five years and six months for entering Ethiopia without permission.
The court is expected to announce its sentencing decision on December 27th, according to reports in the Swedish media.
Charges of participating in terrorism were dropped last month due to a lack of evidence.
Speaking with the TT news agency, the journalists’ Swedish lawyer, Thomas Olsson, said he hoped the court would decide to deport rather than imprison Schibbye and Persson.
“The hope is that they will nullify the charge related to terror crimes and be satisfied with deporting Martin and Johan because they entered the country illegally,” the said.
“Of course, it depends somewhat on how the court views their reason for entering the country. There are sentencing guidelines calling for up to ten years in prison if the purpose was subversive, that is to say, if one had the intention of damaging the Ethiopian state. But since no such reason has been established, the hope is that they will settle on deporting them.”
The journalists both testified they were in Ethiopia to report on the activities of the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil in the Ogaden.
They said they met ONLF chiefs in London and Nairobi before meeting with about 20 members of the group in Ethiopia, about 40 kilometres from the Somali border.
Ulrika Knutson, chair of Sweden’s National Press Club (Publicistklubben – PK), condemned the guilty verdict as a “human, policital, and journalistic catastrophe”.
“We still don’t know how long the penalty will be. When we do know, the Swedish government must use all its powers to see that Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson come home as quickly as possible,” she told Journalisten.se, the newspaper of the Swedish journalists’ union.
Jesper Bengtsson, chair of the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders, also called on the Swedish government to take a more active role in the case of the Swedish journalists, calling their conviction a “blow against press freedom”.
“This is a major blow against quiet diplomacy as well,” he told the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) daily.
“I’m assuming that the lack of sharply-worded statements that has existed in the past will be corrected now.”