ADDIS ABABA — Two Swedish journalists imprisoned on terrorism charges in Ethiopia have received an official pardon. The pardon is part of the yearly mass amnesty for prisoners.
Journalist Martin Schibbey and photographer Johan Persson are among the 1,900 prisoners that were granted pardon this year. The Swedes were convicted of supporting an illegal terrorist group and trespassing the Ethiopian border without documents. Both were sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The journalists requested a state pardon through a letter in which they admitted to collaboration with the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front - something they had denied during their trial.
Ethiopian minister of Justice Berhan Hailu read out parts of the letter.
“We both fully recognize the crimes against the Ethiopian constitution," Berhan said. "We both admit our wrongdoing in collaborating with members of the ONLF terrorist organization. We allowed ourselves to be used and misled by the ONLF. We full confess our crimes, and hereby ask your Excellency and the government and people of Ethiopia to accept our unconditional apology."
Pardoning of prisoners is a yearly tradition that falls together with Ethiopia's New Year. The Horn of Africa country celebrates New Year's day on September 11th because of their calendar.
The pardoning of the two journalists was approved by late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who passed away in August.
International press-freedom and human-rights groups often accuse Ethiopia of suppressing dissident voices. Berhan says the decision to pardon the two Swedish journalists has nothing to do with international pressure, but with the interests of the country.
“The very objective of pardon is to maintain and keep the interest(s) of the public and the government," Berhan said. "If the interest(s) of the government and the public is maintained, we do not have any problem to do anything."
The journalists have not been released yet, according to the minister. He says once they are freed, they will immediately go back to Sweden.
“According to the law of the land, they have to go to their country as soon as possible, so within 24 hours," Berhan said.
The two journalists were arrested in July 2011 when they were captured crossing the border illegally with ONLF members. The Ogaden National Liberation Front is fighting for greater autonomy in Ethiopia's Somali federal state and is labeled a terrorist organization by the government.
Ethiopia began peace negotiations with the Ogaden National Liberation Front last week in Kenya in an attempt to end the 28-year insurgency.