A tale of two Swedes

Originally posted on Jan.12, 2012

On July 1, 2011 freelance journalist Johan Persson and photo journalist Martin Schibbye were detained in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. There are two versions as to why the Swedes were in the area. The first one, according to The Local, a Swedish online news journal, was to “report on the conflict between the Somali guerrillas and the Ethiopian state.” Then another version popped up in the court hearing which asserts that the journalists were in the area to investigate the Lundin Petroleum that was given licenses to explore oil in the East African Nation. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who was under tremendous pressure over the handling of the case, was a member of the board of the company.

But the government in Addis thinks otherwise. The two journalists have been supporting the rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) that has been designated a terrorist organization by Ethiopian parliament in June 2011.

onlfThe trial of the Swedes had attracted huge international media attention. Scores of Swedish journalists flew from Stockholm to express solidarity; international media representatives, diplomats, even the American ambassador in Addis, Donald Booth were among the attendees.  Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were represented by top lawyers from both countries. The trial took a little more than two months. On December 27, 2011 a judge sentenced them to 11 years imprisonment for “supporting terrorism.”

The “high-level contact” between the two countries officials to secure the release of the detainees didn’t bear any fruit. But the relations between the two countries were tense for the past couple of years now. As a result, Addis Ababa decided to close its Embassy in Stockholm. “There is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden,” the Ethiopian PM told reporters in 2010. The two countries relation dates back to the middle of the 19th century. However, the Scandinavian nation of nine million didn’t reciprocate with the same. It kept its Embassy in Addis open for business.

So the Swedes had until January 10, 2012 to appeal. But heeding to “the best possible advice”, they decided – probably wisely – not to appeal.  By now they should have a clear understanding of the justice system of the country. Their guilty verdict was pronounced long before the trial had begun. The PM famously told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten that they were “messenger boys of a terrorist organization.” Don’t blame Judge Shemsu Sirgaga. He was just executing an order from the “dear leader”.

Now there are already talks of the “a tradition of mercy”, Board of Pardon, Presidential Amnesty and so on. Truth be told, how long the Swedes will stay in Kaliti before they go home will squarely depend on the PM who happens to be the darling of the West.

The Kaliti prison which is found in the outskirts of Addis has become a pilgrimage to Ethiopian political dissidents and journalists. Hopefully the Swedes will have a firsthand experience of that grim environment should they want to write about it when they finally go home.

Injustice anywhere…

The justice system in Ethiopia is in shambles. The courts have long become instruments of repression. Judges routinely hand down death sentences and life imprisonment for political dissidents that nobody takes them seriously any more.  See why the journalists are not appealing. Because “they felt that it was very unlikely that another judge would see it any different.” Isn’t the whole point of appeal the overturning of a decision by a lower court? What will a man loose by appealing an 11 year prison sentence? The answer is simple. Johan’s and Martin’s six month sojourn in custody gave them a clear picture of the Ethiopian justice system. So appealing is an exercise in futility.

Sadly, the injustice system that has prevailed in the country is primarily paid for by major European democracies who allowed an autocratic leader stay in power for 20-odd years.  As usual the lip service has been duly rendered. “The sentencing on terrorism-related charges raises concerns about the freedom of media and expression in Ethiopia,” says a statement released by the EU representative.

How long will the process of pardon takes place will also depend on the regime’s intentions rather than rules and procedures. We all hope the two will be released as soon as possible and join their loved ones.

For the record, there are three local and two Eritrean journalists in Ethiopian prisons. And let’s not forget Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, just to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr.


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