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Ethiopian Court Mulls Journalists' Role in Conflict Zones

Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building housing a terror trial against two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 1, 2011.

Pedestrians walk past the Federal High Court building housing a terror trial against two Swedish journalists, Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 1, 2011.

The trial of two Swedish journalists charged with supporting terrorism in Ethiopia has ended with a discussion of the role of reporters in conflict zones.

The defense wrapped up its case by calling two veteran foreign correspondents as witnesses.

A three-judge Ethiopian federal court panel is to hand down a verdict December 21 in the case of freelance journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson. The pair are charged with offering support to the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a rebel group Ethiopia has labeled a terrorist organization.

Schibbye and Persson were arrested June 30 in the company of ONLF fighters, after a gunbattle between the rebels and Ethiopian troops, who are engaged in a counter-insurgency operation in the region. A video recorded a day after the clash and played in court Wednesday shows the two men wearing bandages from minor wounds suffered in the exchange of fire.

ONLF communiques sent by email tell of frequent clashes in the mostly Muslim region, which borders Somalia. The claims cannot be independently confirmed because the region is off-limits to most outsiders, but government officials have described the reports as “exaggerated."

The case of the two Swedes gained notoriety after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi publicly commented on the charges against them. In an interview with a Norwegian newspaper, Meles said they were “at the least messenger boys for a terrorist organization."

At the trial, Schibbye and Persson admitted illegally crossing the border from Somalia into Ethiopia, but denied supporting the ONLF. They said they were in the Ogaden to investigate the activities of a Swedish oil firm with interests in the region.

As they closed their case Wednesday, defense attorneys called two veteran foreign correspondents to testify about how journalists operate in conflict zones.

Adrian Blomfield, the Middle East correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, said reporters must sometimes travel to off-limits areas and meet what some would call unsavory characters in search of stories that governments would prefer are not told. He summarized his testimony for VOA.

"People who have reported in conflict zones often for various reasons may cross a border unofficially or with a particular group, and I just wanted to get across the point there is nothing untoward, there is nothing sinister about this. This is just how journalists operate, and sometimes we get caught, but we don't expect to be charged with terrorism as a result," said Blomfield.

Blomfield said he explained to the court that what Schibbye and Persson did is standard procedure for reporters covering conflicts.

"This is not an unusual case. This is what journalists do all over the world for whatever reasons," said Blomfield.

Schibbye and Persson were charged under a recently enacted anti-terrorism law criticized as “overly vague” by human rights and press freedom groups. The statute criminalizes any reporting deemed to encourage or provide moral support to groups that the government considers terrorists.

If convicted, the two Swedes could face up to 15 years in prison.

Sweden's ambassador to Ethiopia, Jens Odlander, told reporters after the trial the Stockholm government remains steadfast in its contention that Schibbye and Persson are bona fide journalists. He expressed optimism for a favorable verdict.

"I'm expecting a good outcome. I don't want to elaborate too much on it, but I expect a very good outcome from this," said Odlander.

Attorneys say final arguments in the case are to be submitted in writing within the week. The court is scheduled to hand down its verdict in the final 10 days of the year.