Peter Heinlein VOA| Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
“The charge states that the journalists… have intentionally tried to assist and promote the causes of terrorism,” Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal
Two Swedish journalists charged with terrorism go on trial Tuesday in Ethiopia’s capital. Press freedom groups and Sweden’s Foreign Ministry are watching the case closely.
Swedish freelance journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were arrested in July in Ethiopia’s restive Ogaden region in the company of rebels fighting for regional autonomy.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told VOA by phone that the journalists were charged under a new anti-terrorism law that names the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front as a terrorist group.
“The charge states that the journalists, in violation of the anti-terrorist law, have intentionally tried to assist and promote the causes of terrorism,” said Shimeles.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a Norwegian newspaper the accused were not being accused as journalists. He said they were “at the very least, the messenger boys of a terrorist organization.”
Spokesman Shimeles, a former government prosecutor, said the two Swedes are alleged to have been carrying weapons, and were captured after a gun battle.
“The prosecution proposes to adduce evidence showing their involvement with the terrorist organization, including video evidence showing they were carrying arms,” said Shimeles. “It is to be recalled that they have been captured together with wounded terrorists in a conflict where a number of terrorists accompanying them were killed.”
The case has drawn wide interest from media freedom groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement saying the government had compromised the journalists’ right of presumption of innocence by portraying them in the media as accomplices to terrorists.
The trial is also being closely followed in Sweden, where Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has called on Ethiopia to release the two journalists. Bildt, who has been criticized for his handling of the case, has sent a senior adviser to monitor the proceedings.
In a telephone interview, Sweden’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Jens Odlander, said his government is questioning the terrorism charges.
“We have no reason to doubt they are bona fide journalists and that they are now brought under terrorism charges. But tomorrow the legal process will start and we’re going to see. It’s the first preliminary hearing and we’re going to hear what the judges will say also,” said Odlander.
Odlander has been meeting the journalists regularly since their arrest, and said they are in “pretty good” shape, and eager to have their case heard.
The two Swedes are among more than 150 people, mostly journalists and opposition supporters, who have been arrested since May on suspicion of involvement with groups outlawed under the anti-terrorism act.
Rights groups and legal experts have described the law as vague and open to abuse. Spokesman Shimeles said the arrests have been instrumental in foiling possible terrorist attacks.