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Swedish Journalists Plead Not Guilty to Ethiopian Terrorism Charge

Two Swedish journalists arrested in Ethiopia's volatile Ogaden region have pleaded not guilty to charges of involvement in terrorist activities. The pair maintain they were in the Ogaden to investigate the activities of a Swedish oil firm.

Swedish Journalists Plead Not Guilty to Ethiopian Terrorism Charge

Swedish Journalists Plead Not Guilty to Ethiopian Terrorism Charge

The charge read to a packed courtroom Thursday accuses freelance journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson of involvement with the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front, which Ethiopia has labeled a terrorist group.

The three-count indictment says the two Swedes used journalism as a cover for their real mission of working with ONLF fighters to plot terrorist attacks against sensitive oil and gas installations.

A government spokesman says the pair face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Defense attorney Abebe Balcha says Schibbye and Persson strictly maintain their innocence on all terrorism charges.

"The only mistake they have done is entering the country without proper documentation," said Abebe. "Other than that they are not guilty of any of the charges framed against them. Not any of the counts."

After hearing the charges and the not guilty pleas, the trial was adjourned until November 1 to give attorneys time to prepare.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt attends a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on October 16, 2011

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt attends a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on October 16, 2011

The case is receiving wide attention in Sweden, where Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is accused of not doing enough to secure the journalists' release.

Eighteen Swedish journalists attended the first two days of the trial, partly in a show of solidarity with their colleagues.

Media reports have suggested Bildt responded cooly to requests for help because the journalists had been investigating allegations of human rights abuses by Ethiopian troops protecting oil exploration teams in the region. Ethiopia denies the allegations.

Bildt formerly served on the board of a Swedish oil firm that at one time had indirect ties to oil exploration in the Ogaden. He has previously called the allegations part of a political campaign against him.

Sweden's ambassador to Ethiopia Jens Odlander told VOA by phone Thursday there is still hope for a negotiated settlement of the case.

"When we talk with the Ethiopians we still argue for an informal solution," said Odlander. "On the levels of the politicians in Sweden they have expressed that they are convinced these are bona fide journalists and there was a mistake being done by police and other authorities in the beginning here in Ethiopia."

As the case was being heard in Ethiopia's federal high court Thursday, it was also being discussed in parliament, where Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was answering questions.

In an earlier interview with a Norwegian newspaper, Mr. Meles rejected the two Swedes' claim to be journalists. He said, “at the least they were messenger boys of a terrorist organization."

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (File)

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (File)

Speaking to lawmakers Thursday, the prime minister argued that no one would have raised the issue of human rights if the journalists had been caught crossing into the United States from Mexico in the company of terrorists. He said “sometimes it seems as if terrorism is seen differently, depending on whether the victims are white or black.”

Mr. Meles told parliament he does not differentiate between the ONLF, which Ethiopia recently labeled as terrorists, and the internationally recognized al-Shabab terrorists in neighboring Somalia. He said the only difference he sees between the two is that the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab fighters are professionals while the ONLF are amateurs.