Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson are serving 11-year sentences
"There is a tradition of mercy and forgiveness in Ethiopia," Schibbye's mother says
"They felt that their defense arguments didn't have much impact" at trial, she says
They have been held in harsh conditions, she says
The two Swedish journalists convicted as terrorists in Ethiopia have opted to seek a pardon rather than appeal the verdict and their 11-year sentences, a Swedish official said Tuesday.
Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were convicted in December by a court in Addis Ababa after being accused of helping the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which Ethiopia has labeled a terrorist organization, and for entering Ethiopia illegally.
The decision to try for a pardon “does not mean any change in our view that they were there working as journalists and that they should be released as soon as possible,” Kent Oberg, spokesman for the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told CNN.
Ethiopian troops captured Persson and Schibbye in July during an exchange of gunfire with the rebel group in the Ogaden, a prohibited region along the nation’s border with Somalia, according to state media
In a short statement provided to CNN by Schibbye’s mother, Karin, the two journalists said: “There is a tradition of mercy and forgiveness in Ethiopia and we choose to rely on this tradition.”
The Swedish Union of Journalists reiterated that Persson and Schibbye were in Ethiopia working as journalists.
“It will always be a defeat for press freedom when journalists are prosecuted, imprisoned and convicted when they are performing their job as journalists,” Jonas Nordling, president of the Swedish Union of Journalists, said in a statement on the union’s website.
Karin Schibbye said in a phone call with CNN that this has been a difficult time for the family.
“I’m very shaken, but I’m starting to get used to it,” she said. “We live day by day. The first big shock came when they were prosecuted. The next devastating moment was when the judge found them guilty of terrorism.”
She said the two men deny that they were in Ethiopia to support terrorism.
“They are innocent. They had no intention of disrupting anything in Ethiopia, no bad intentions at all, but now it is like they are in a trap,” she said.
“The fact that they chose not to appeal means they now have to figure out exactly how this process of seeking a pardon will work, if they have to admit to the crimes or just apologize.”
The pair sought “the best possible advice,” she said, adding that “most experts have said that seeking a pardon is the best way forward.”
After the trial, she said, “They felt that their defense arguments didn’t have much impact” and “They felt that it was very unlikely that another judge would see it any different.”
“This may take a long time, but they are ready for it,” she said.
Karin Schibbye last saw the two journalists just before Christmas, and she said the pair feels that they have great support from home.
“They are happy that their case has put a spotlight on press freedom and human rights in Ethiopia and that their ordeal isn’t in vain.”
Schibbye and Persson are being held under harsh circumstances at the Kality prison, Karin Schibbye told CNN.
“The prison is divided into zones with about 1,000 people in each zone,” she said. “In each zone there are small huts, with between 150 and 250 people in each, where they are locked up at night. In each hut there are only about 100 beds, so most people sleep on the bare floor. At one point Martin told me there were so many prisoners in the hut that they had to sleep stacked next to each other on the floor.”
But now Schibbye and Persson have advanced in the prison’s “inner hierarchy,” Karin Schibbye said, and they share a bed that is 90 centimeters wide. “They have also sewn, like, a tent to give them a little bit of privacy,” she said. “But the light is never turned off and it is never quiet at night, so I think that is the hardest thing for them.”
The men have put themselves on a daily schedule of eating and exercising to try to stay healthy,” she said. “But there is no room to exercise, so they jump up and down right where they are to at least do something.”
The family is paying a hotel across the street to bring them lunch packets each day, “and we’ve given them some dry food to cook at night,” she said. “But they have to hang it up in the roof so that the rats don’t eat it. … We should have given them metal cans instead of plastic ones since the rats can eat through the plastic cans.”
Schibbye and Persson have also persuaded the prison warden to allow them to start setting up a library in the prison, she said.
“Now every time we go down there from now on we will bring a suitcase full of English books. So if anyone wants to help out and send down English books to their new library that would be great,” Karin Schibbye told CNN.
When the process of seeking a pardon can start is still unclear, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.