It was standing room only Tuesday as a three-judge federal panel began hearing the case of Swedish journalists charged with terrorism by Ethiopian authorities after being arrested with members of an outlawed rebel group in the restive Ogaden region.
Among those present were 18 Swedish journalists who flew in from Stockholm, partly in a symbolic show of solidarity. A large contingent of Western diplomats was also in the courtroom, including U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Booth.
The two Swedes, freelance investigative reporter Martin Schibbye and photojournalist Johan Persson, were arrested in July in Ethiopia’s Somali region while traveling with rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is fighting for regional autonomy. The government alleges the pair were not just journalists, but were actively supporting the rebels and has charged them under an anti-terrorism law.
The trial’s brief opening session was adjourned to allow time for two surprise co-defendants to be given court-appointed lawyers. Lead defense attorney Sileshi Kesela told reporters he had used the opening session to demand the prosecution share evidence confiscated during the arrests, including a video shot by the defendants and their press credentials.
“It was the court which asked did you not receive any of the evidence, and we indicated we haven’t received this and this evidence, one written material and one cassette,” said Kesela.
The case is being keenly watched in Sweden, where Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is being accused of not having done enough to support the journalists.
Swedish media have reported the journalists were looking into alleged human rights violations by Ethiopian troops providing security for foreign companies searching for oil in the region. Among them is Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish firm where Bildt served as a board member before becoming foreign minister.
Bildt has called the charges part of a political campaign to discredit him. He has sent former Foreign Ministry legal director Carl Henrik Ehrenkrona as his personal representative in the case. Ehrenkrona declined to comment on reports he has been negotiating for the journalists’ release.
Sweden’s ambassador to Ethiopia Jens Odlander flatly rejected the charge that the Foreign Ministry has not done enough to secure the journalists’ release.
“The political leadership in Stockholm is very engaged, and as you see the magistrate is a special envoy from the minister Carl Bildt, so I would take it as a personal insult to say we haven’t done enough,” he said.
Legal experts say they expect a quick resolution of the case, barring any delays in access to the evidence. One attorney close to the trial, who could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said a negotiated settlement is still possible.
If convicted, the two Swedish journalists could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of engaging in terrorist activity. The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday.