By William Davison –
Sept. 10 (Bloomberg) — Two Swedish reporters jailed by Ethiopian authorities last year for supporting terrorism were among more than 1,900 prisoners pardoned today by the government, Justice Minister Berhan Hailu said. The release of the prisoners on the eve of the Ethiopian New Year marks the end of a process started during the rule of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Berhan told reporters in the capital, Addis Ababa, today.
“Regarding the Swedish journalists, they are among the ones who will be released soon,” he said. “The journalists submitted petitions accepting they committed the crime.” Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were arrested with members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front rebel group in July last year. The two freelance journalists were sentenced to 11 years each in December for supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally. Ethiopia’s government announced on Sept. 8 it’s in peace talks with the rebels, who have been fighting since 1984 for more autonomy for the ethnic-Somali Ogaden people.
“This type of granting pardon to prisoners helps the state to ensure peace and stability, implement the constitution, and it also helps the prisoners to serve their families and contribute to the development of the country,” Berhan said. More prisoners may be given amnesty in the coming months, said Ephraim Isaac, who is chairman of the National Coalition of Ethiopian Elders that helped facilitate talks between the government and the Ogaden rebels. He declined to comment on the negotiations.
“We have been working on processing more pardons already in the time of the prime minister,” he said in an interview in the capital today. “We expect they will be completed.”
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Reporters Without Borders hails Swedish journalists’ release
The Ethiopian government has released reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, who spent 14 months in prison on convictions for their professional activities.
After granting the journalists a pardon on the Ethiopian new year (11 September), the government immediately freed them. The two had been convicted of illegal entry into the country and alleged support for terrorism.
“Let us not forget that the journalists were imprisoned for 14 months without genuine cause,” Christophe Deloire, director general of Reporters Without Borders, said in a statement. “They simply doing their duty of reporting the news.”
The press freedom organization had for weeks been closely following direct negotiations between the Swedish government and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. His sudden death on 21 August had aroused grave concern for Swedish officials and the journalists’ families that the talks would slow down.
On assignment for the Kontinent news service, Schibbye and Personn had been arrested on 1 July 2011 along with members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The journalists had illegally entered the Ogaden region of southeast Ethiopia to report on the human rights situation there. Before they were arrested, they had been wounded during a battle between the rebel group and Ethiopian forces, in which 15 liberation front members were killed.
Deloire noted that journalists’ safety remains a grave concern, with three Ethiopian and two Eritrean journalists still in custody. “While we express our relief for our Swedish colleagues, we maintain our demand to free all imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia,” he said.
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CPJ welcomes Ethiopian pardon of Swedish journalists
Nairobi, September 10, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists is relieved to learn the Ethiopian government has pardoned Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye today.
“We welcome the government’s decision and look forward to the prompt release of Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye,” said CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita. “However, journalists should never be jailed for legitimate newsgathering. Authorities ought to show tolerance for independent reporting and release the remaining six journalists imprisoned.”
Since 2011, the government of Ethiopia has convicted 11 independent journalists and bloggers under a sweeping antiterrorism law. Ethiopian authorities arrested Persson and Schibbye in July 2011 and sentenced them to 11 years in prison for allegedly supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally after the two reporters covered the activities of a separatist group in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.