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Ethiopia pardons two jailed Swedish journalists

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 10 Sep 2012 04:40 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Pair arrested in July, 2011, for supporting ONLF

* Addis Ababa says pair set for release within 24 hrs

* Journalists had been sentenced to 11 years in jail (Adds details, background)

By Aaron Maasho

ADDIS ABABA, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Monday it has pardoned two Swedish journalists jailed for assisting an outlawed rebel group, with the pair set for release in the next 24 hours.

Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson were arrested in July, 2011, after entering the country from neighbouring Somalia with fighters from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) rebel group.

A government source told Reuters earlier on Monday that the two had been pardoned along with more than 1,900 other inmates, adding that the decision was approved before the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on Aug. 20.

"These journalists submitted their petition to the late Prime Minister before June and ... (President Girma Woldegiorgis) arrived at a decision to grant pardon to them," Justice Minister Berhan Hailu told a new conference.

"Within 24 hours they have to leave the country."

The journalists' Swedish lawyer Thomas Olsson said: "All signals of that kind are aimed at raising hopes. But I don't want to speculate on what will happen in the coming days.

"I want to await any decisions and relate to those when we know what is happening," Olsson said.

Schibbye's wife Linnea said she was awaiting confirmation from Sweden of her husband's pardon. The Swedish government has not made any comment.

Schibbye and Persson were sentenced to 11 years in jail by an Ethiopian court in December for helping and promoting the ONLF. Some of Ethiopia's Western allies, including the European Union and United States, said they were concerned over the verdict.

The pair were acquitted of terrorism related charges after the court found they were not involved in carrying out any attacks.

Addis Ababa often grants mass pardons and announces the decisions ahead of major holidays, in particular the Ethiopian New Year which is celebrated on Sept. 11.

In February, Meles said he might pardon politicians and journalists imprisoned under anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2009. At the time, he dismissed opposition criticism he was using the law to clamp down on dissent.

In their pardon request, Berhan said the pair admitted to "wrongdoing" and "committing crimes".

"We both fully recognise the crime we committed against the Ethiopian constitution. We allowed ourselves to be misused and misled by the ONLF," the request said, according to Berhan.

TENSE RELATIONS

Relations between Ethiopia and Sweden had become increasingly strained in the two years preceding the journalists' court case. Some diplomatic sources said the Ethiopian government had been rankled by Sweden's perceived backing of Ethiopia's opposition.

Ethiopia's opposition leader Birtukan Mideska, who was convicted of treason after violence broke out following a presidential poll in 2005 and then pardoned, was jailed again in 2008 after he had flown to Stockholm and publicly disputed Addis Ababa's version of the pardon.

Birtukan was released in 2010, four months after presidential elections, and is now in the United States.

Sweden has also been critical of Ethiopia's human rights record.

Ethiopia has detained about 150 people, including some 10 reporters, since legislation designed to tackle the activities of rebel groups that have links with al Qaeda and Eritrea was passed in 2009.

In July, Addis Ababa sentenced a prominent blogger and five other exiled journalists to between eight years to life on charges of conspiring with rebels to topple the government.

Berhan said he was not aware of any pardon requests from those cases. (Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom and Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Editing by Richard Lough and Michael Roddy)

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