Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 1, 2011.
Two Swedish journalists arrested in the company of rebels in Ethiopia's restive Ogaden region have been found guilty of supporting terrorism. The case is attracting wide attention from international human rights and press freedom groups.
Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson appeared stunned as Ethiopian High Court judge Shemsu Sirgaga pronounced them guilty of aiding a terrorist group and entering the country illegally.
They face a maximum of 18 years in prison. Sentencing is set for next week.
The two Swedes were arrested June 30 in Ethiopia's Somali region while traveling with rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which is fighting for regional autonomy. The region has been off-limits to most outsiders for years while government troops carry out what human rights groups allege is a harsh counterinsurgency campaign against the ONLF.
Schibbye and Persson admitted entering Ethiopia illegally from Somalia, but denied supporting the rebels. They told the court they were investigating a Swedish firm allegedly involved in oil exploration in the conflict zone.
The case is being closely followed in Sweden because of the firm's ties to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
In reading the verdict, Judge Shemsu told the pair he accepted their claim to be journalists, but said it was hard to believe they could be impartial while breaking the laws of a sovereign country.
The verdict surprised the large contingent of foreign observers, diplomats and Swedish journalists who had been following the trial. Ingrid Dahlback of the Swedish news agency TT said the weight of evidence had raised hopes that the defendants would be found not guilty of supporting terrorism.
“I thought the judge would at least take some of the arguments from the defense, but as it seems he went almost only on the prosecutor's line," said Dahlback. "So it's very bad news for the Swedish journalists, and I would say it's bad news for freedom of the press.”
An ashen-faced Swedish ambassador to Ethiopia, Jens Odlander, said the next move would be up to authorities in Stockholm.
“This is very disappointing,' said Odlander. "We have to analyze the situation.”
The reaction from Stockholm was swift. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt issued a statement saying the journalists were on a legitimate assignment and should be freed immediately. He said his government was already in high-level contact with Ethiopian officials on the matter.
Mats Larsson, who covered the trial for Sweden's mass-circulation Dagens Nyheter newspaper, says the verdict would likely have domestic political repercussions.
“There's been a big discussion in Sweden about the role of the Swedish foreign minister," said Larsson. "There are accusations that he has seen these two guys as left-wingers in the wrong part of the world and that this was their own fault that they came into this situation. And the result of this trial is a disaster for the Swedish government and for the relatives and for the two Swedish journalists and for freedom of speech in the world.”
The verdict also sparked condemnation from human rights and press freedom defenders. Amnesty International called the two journalists “prisoners of conscience," and said it sees no evidence they were supporting the ONLF.
The media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders earlier sent a letter to the United Nations accusing Ethiopia of muzzling dissent.
Eight Ethiopian journalists are also currently on trial on terrorism-related charges - three in person and five others in absentia. Some of them could face the death penalty if convicted.