(London) – An Ethiopian court’s conviction of two Swedish journalists on charges of supporting terrorism after an unfair trial demonstrates that the country’s anti-terrorism law is fundamentally flawed and being used to repress legitimate reporting, Human Rights Watch said today. In the absence of genuine evidence against the journalists, the government should immediately drop the terrorism charges against them, Human Rights Watch said.
After an unfair trial, a court in Addis Ababa on December 21, 2011, convicted Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson of “rendering support to terrorism” and entering the country illegally for subversive purposes. The terrorism charge carries a penalty of 10 to 15 years of “rigorous imprisonment.”
“The sham convictions of two Swedish journalists confirm that the chief purpose of the anti-terrorism law’s clause on ‘supporting terrorism’ is to suppress the legitimate work of the media,” said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The vague and broad anti-terrorism law was open to abuse and it is being abused.”
Ethiopian authorities arrested Schibbye and Persson on July 1 while they were reporting on the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an armed insurgent group that the government outlawed earlier in 2011. After a two-month trial, they were found guilty of rendering support for a terrorist organization by providing “a skill, expertise or moral support or gives advice.” They were also convicted under the penal code of entering the country illegally “for the purpose of engaging in subversive activity.”
Human Rights Watch has long criticized Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law for its overly broad definition of support for terrorism. The law’s vague prohibition on “moral support” is contrary to international standards on the principle of legality, which requires that individuals be able to determine what acts would constitute a crime. Only journalists have been charged under this article. Since June, three Ethiopian journalists have been charged with providing support to terrorism.
Knowledgeable sources, including Swedish embassy officials who monitored the trial, told Human Rights Watch that the court presented no credible evidence for the charge that the men provided support for terrorism or that they entered the country illegally to engage in subversive activity. The convictions relied on the testimony of two police officers who claimed to have been present at the journalists’ arrest and video footage that appeared doctored of the journalists holding weapons.
The case is marred by due process concerns. The presiding judge in his decision appeared to violate the right to a presumption of innocence, saying that the defendants “have not been able to prove that they did not support terrorism.” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was quoted in a Norwegian newspaper before the Swedes’ trial accusing them of supporting terrorists, raising further concerns about the presumption of innocence. The courts in Ethiopia have little independence from the government.
The prosecutor recommended sentences of 18 years in prison for both men. Sentencing is scheduled for December 27.
Currently, 29 Ethiopian journalists, opposition members, and others are on trial under the anti-terrorism law. Human Rights Watch said that the government’s exploitation of the broad and vaguely worded terms of the law to suppress the right to freedom of expression, the abuse of international fair trial standards, and the absence of credible evidence in the case of the Swedes raise serious concerns for the rights of others facing terrorism charges.
“The conviction of two Swedish journalists should be a flashing alarm to the world that no one is safe from unfair prosecution in Ethiopia today,” Peligal said.