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IPI welcomes announced pardon of Swedish journalists in Ethiopia

UPDATE: RSF hails Swedish journalists' release (RSF, 10 September 2012)

(IPI/IFEX) - 10 September 2012 – The International Press Institute welcomed early reports that two Swedish journalists who have spent more than a year in an Ethiopian prison are to be pardoned, according to news reports.

Freelancer Martin Schibbye and photojournalist Johan Persson were arrested in July 2011 while travelling with rebels in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where separatist insurgents of the Ogaden National Liberation Front have called for autonomy. Travel to this area is reportedly heavily restricted for foreign journalists, and so Schibbye and Persson reportedly crossed from Somalia, hoping to cover the reported human rights abuses in the region.

In December 2011, Schibbye and Persson were convicted and sentenced to 11 years for entering the country illegally and "rendering support to terrorism."

IPI and other press freedom and human rights groups have repeatedly called for Ethiopia to free the Swedes and other jailed journalists. Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt has been in the hot seat for failing to do more, earlier, to ensure their freedom.

Schibbye and Persson are to be given amnesty along with 1,900 others, in honor of Ethiopia's new year, Bloomberg quoted Communications Minister Bereket Simon as saying.

It was not immediately clear whether other journalists who have been jailed in Ethiopia will also be released.

According to information sent by a knowledgeable source in Ethiopia, the president of Ethiopia has the right to pardon prisoners or reduce their sentences on the basis of recommendations made by a pardons board. The board is comprised of the justice minister, officials, and non-government experts who are appointed by other ministries.

The announcement comes just weeks after official confirmation that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who led Ethiopia for over twenty years as president and then premier, had died.

"We are happy to hear that Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson will be freed, and hope that they are able to return to their families and friends in Sweden very soon," said IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills. "Despite this development, other journalists remain in prison and we hope that Ethiopia will release them as soon as possible."

IPI has condemned the use of terrorism charges against journalists, not only because it is a violation of press freedom rights, but because it undermines the fight against real terrorists who use violence and not words to make their point. Unfortunately, Ethiopia has jailed a number of journalists because of their words.

Reyot Alemu, who wrote for Feteh newspaper, and Woubshet Taye, who worked for the Awramba Times, were sentenced to 14 years in prison in January 2012 for a range of terrorism-related crimes and money laundering. In July 2012, Eskinder Nega, a vociferous government critic, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for "participation in a terrorist organization" and "planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act," as IPI reported at the time.

On July 20, 2012, security forces arrested Yusuf Getachew, editor of YeMuslimoch Guday (Muslim Affairs), after raiding his home and confiscating equipment, books and money from him and his wife, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported. He has reportedly been charged with "treason and incitement to violence."

CPJ further records that two journalists working for Eri-TV, the Eritrean state broadcaster, have been in prison since December 2006. In September 2011, Zenawi reportedly said that Saleh Idris Gama and Tesfalidet Kidane Tesfazghi could be freed if they were cleared of "espionage."

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