Ethiopia: Kangaroo justice for two Swedish journalists By Alemayehu G Mariam
The old adage is that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Could it be said equally that arrogance excuses ignorance of the law? Dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi recently proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while visiting Norway. He emphatically declared that the duo had crossed into Ethiopia from Somalia with insurgents of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) as terrorist accomplices and collaborators: “They are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists. Why would a journalist be involved with a terrorist organization and enter a country with that terrorist organization, escorted by armed terrorists, and participate in a fighting in which this terrorist organization was involved? If that is journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.”
At a “court” hearing last week, Persson denied the charges: “My intention was to do my job as a journalist and describe the conflict. Nothing else. Not guilty.” Schibbye admitted “entering the country without proper documentation. For that I am guilty and I apologize to the government of Ethiopia. But I am not guilty of terrorist activity.” Shimeles Kemal, the “chief prosecutor” was full of hyperbole when he laid out his “legal” case in a press conference. He claimed the two journalists “entered the country with a gang of terrorists. They have even been trained in using weapons. They are accused of abetting and rendering professional assistance to terrorists. Their activities go a bit beyond just journalistic news gathering.”
Criminalizing, demonizing and dehumanizing journalists, opposition leaders and dissidents as “terrorists”, “insurrectionists”, “treasonous” traitors, etc. is Zenawi’s signature M.O. (method of operation). When Zenawi jailed editors of several newspapers following the 2005 elections, he described them in much the same way: “For us, these are not just journalists. They will not be charged for violating the press laws. They will charged, like the CUD leaders, for treason.” This past June, Zenawi ordered the arrest and detention of two young and dynamic journalists, Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the weekly Awramba Times and Reeyot Alemu, columnist for the weekly Feteh, on fuzzy accusations of terrorism. Last month, Zenawi’s “chief prosecutor” ordered the arrest and detention of the distinguished Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega “for conspiring with terrorist organizations such as Ginbot 7 and other foreign forces who wanted to wreak havoc in the country through their terrorist activities.” When Zenawi wants to jail journalists, he simply brands them as “terrorists” or smears them with a similar label and carts them off to jail.
The Committee to Protect Journalists roundly condemned Zenawi’s statement as “compromising” the Swedish journalists’ human right to a “presumption of innocence and for predetermining the outcome of their case”. But much more is compromised, including the rule of law, principles of due process and fair trial, the universal principle that it is the accuser, and not the accused, who bears the burden of proof in a criminal case, the principle that guilt is proven in a court of law with an independent judiciary and not before a full court press or the court of international opinion. Ultimately, Zenawi’s statement compromised justice itself.
When Zenawi tagged these two journalists as “terrorist messenger boys” and “participants in the actions of a terrorist organization”, he had in fact sealed their fate and pronounced the final word in kangaroo justice. There is no way that Persson and Schibbye could possibly get a fair trial or not be convicted following such an outrageous and egregiously depraved statement by Zenawi.
Difference Between Journalists and Terrorists
Zenawi sarcastically mocked the two Swedish journalists by rhetorically asking if what they did is “journalism, I don’t know what terrorism is.” Zenawi is entitled to some basic clarification by means of concrete examples. War crimes (“the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, and any devastation not justified by military or civilian necessity [Geneva Convention]” are acts of state terrorism. So are crimes against humanity (“widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, murder, forcible transfer of population, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, [Rome Statute]”. The “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” by an “extremely powerful political police against an atomized and defenseless population” is plain old-fashioned terrorism that is familiar to the average Ethiopian citizen.
When journalists are embedded with a regular or an irregular military unit and go into a conflict or war zone, they are engaged in “combat journalism”. When journalists dig for facts in places where there is an official news blackout, they are engaged in investigative journalism. When journalists undertake dangerous assignments and cover stories firsthand from a war zone, they are often called war correspondents. When independent reporters, writers and photojournalists accept specific assignments to cover particular stories, they are engaged in freelance journalism. It is because of freelance journalists that the world has come to know so much about the war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in such places like Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and many other places.
Oftentimes insurgent and rebel groups distrust professional journalists affiliated with established news organizations. They are more likely to cooperate with freelance journalists who often take great risks to their own safety to undertake firsthand investigations by entering a country at war or in conflict without a visa. Schibbye has been a foreign correspondent and freelance journalist for several newspapers, including The Times, Amelia and Proletären. He has worked in Algeria, the Philippines, Cuba, Syria and Vietnam, among other countries. Persson has worked with Kontinent, a Swedish photojournalist agency, for several years and taken many dangerous assignments in various countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Both are professional journalists, and until now have never been suspected of any terrorist activity or involvement of any kind by any other country or international agency.
The Human Right to a Fair Trial
Zenawi seems to be uninformed, willfully ignorant or recklessly indifferent to the human rights of the two journalists. The fact of the matter is that Persson and Schibbye are presumed to be innocent of any and all charges of “terrorism” until they have been given a fair chance to defend themselves and their guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt by their accusers in court. So says the Ethiopian Constitution under Art. 20 (3): “During proceedings accused persons have the right to be presumed innocent.” So says the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Art. 11: “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which they have had all the guarantees necessary for their defence.” So says the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) under Art. 14 (2): “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” So says the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) under Art. 7 (b): “The right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty by a competent court or tribunal.” Art. 13 (2) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides double guarantees: “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.” (Also art. 9 (4).) Ethiopia ratified the UDHR in 1948, the ICCPR in 1993 and the ACHPR in 1998.
Article 13(1) mandates Zenawi to respect and enforce the provisions of the Constitution, including Articel 20 (3). He violated his constitutional duty under Art. 9 (2) by publicly declaring the guilt of Persson and Schibbye and characterizing them as “messenger boys of terrorists”, “participants in terrorism” and terrorist accomplices before they have had a chance to present a defense and a determination of their guilt made by a fair and neutral tribunal.
The presumption of innocence is the “golden thread” in the laws of all civilized nations. It is the gold standard of fundamental fairness which places the entire burden of proof in a criminal case on the state. It is the singular duty of the prosecution representing the state to present compelling and legally admissible evidence in court to convince the trier of fact that the accused is guilty of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. Persson and Schibbye guilt is not to be proven in a press conference in Oslo or in the court of public opinion.
The presumption of innocence requires that there be no pronouncement of guilt of the defendant by responsible officials likely to have a role or influence the judicial process prior to a finding of guilt by a court. Even when prosecutors make statements concerning the defendant to inform the public on the status of their investigation or articulate their suspicion of guilt, they have a legal and ethical duty to do so in a factual manner and narrowly limited to the allegedly violated laws, while always exercising reasonable care not to unduly prejudice the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence or improperly influence the fact finder.
Trial by Diktat
Expecting a fair trial in kangaroo court is like expecting democracy in a dictatorship. Persson and Schibbye will be convicted by Zenawi’s diktat just as the journalists and opposition leaders were convicted before them. Following the 2005 election, Zenawi publicly declared: “The CUD (Kinijit) leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, Zenawi railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, to prison on the bogus charge that she had denied receiving a pardon. She was not even accorded the ceremonial kangaroo court proceedings. Zenawi sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement by diktat and sadistically delcared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He “pardoned” her in October 2010. In 2009, Zenawi’s right hand man labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long sentences. For Zenawi, court trials are nothing more than circus sideshows staged for the benefit of Western donors who know better but go along to get along.
No Fair Trial Possible fort the Swedish Journalists in Kangaroo Court
Everyone knows the charge of “terrorism” against Persson and Schibbye is bogus. It is a trumped up charge made by prosecutors who are directed, pressured, threatened and politically manipulated. Everyone knows there are no independent judges who preside in cases involving defendants facing “terrorism” and other political charges. Everyone knows the so-called judges in terrorism “trials” are party hacks and lackeys enrobed in judicial regalia. This is not the conclusion of a partisan advocate but the considered view of the U.S. Government and various international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch concluded in its 2007 report: “In high-profile cases, courts show little independence or concern for defendants’ procedural rights… The judiciary often acts only after unreasonably long delays, sometimes because of the courts’ workloads, more often because of excessive judicial deference to bad faith prosecution requests for time to search for evidence of a crime.” The 2010 U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices concluded: “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to significant political intervention and influence.”
Everyone also knows that there is no such thing as the rule of law in Ethiopia because dictatorship is very antitheses of the rule of law. Zenawi’s diktat is “The Law”, which trumps the constitution and all international human rights conventions. Ethiopia’s former president and parliamentarian Dr. Negasso Gidada described the so-called antiterrorism law as a tool of legalized terrorism which “violates citizens’ rights to privacy” and the “ rights of all peoples of Ethiopia…Such laws are manipulated to weaken political roles of opposition groups there by arresting and prosecuting them using the bill as a cover. Another major opposition leader, Bulcha Demeksa, described the same “law” as a “a weapon designed by the ruling party not only to weaken and totally eliminate all political opponents.” In other words, the “anti-terrorism law” under which the two Swedish journalists are charged is a weapon of mass incarceration and intimidation of political opponents and journalists, mass persecution of the political opposition and mass oppression of the civilian population.
The Silence of Sweden
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has been severely criticized for his apparent indifference and failure to help the two Swedish journalists or even publicly demand their release in light of the bogus terrorism charges. Critics argue that Bildt dragged his feet and failed to secure their release in the crucial first days of the detention of the two journalists because of a potential conflict of interest as the two journalists were also investigating the activities of a company affiliated to Lundin Petroleum, a Swedish oil group which has natural gas operations in the Ogaden. Bildt is said to have served as board member of Lundin Petroleum, prior to becoming foreign minister. In January 2009, Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Gunilla Carlsson issued a statement declaring that the “imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa is a source of great concern both for her personally and for democratic development in Ethiopia. The scope for democracy and pluralism is shrinking in Ethiopia. The imprisonment of Mrs Midekssa and the recently adopted law regulating the activities and funding of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are examples of this negative development.”
Swedish journalist and writer Bengt Nilsson has argued that Sweden for decades has turned a blind eye as its development aid has been used to support dictatorships and finance wars in Africa. The Swedish government’s “new policy for Africa” claims to be based upon “economic growth, deeper democracy and stronger protection of human rights as the basis for development in Africa.” How the Swedish government will “deal” its way out of the “crisis” of the two journalists will show if Sweden will continue to support African dictatorships or use it aid dollars to help democratize Africa and protect the human rights of the African peoples.
What is the Kangaroo Trial of the Swedish Journalists Really About?
Back in August 2010, Zenawi announced he will close his embassy in Sweden because “there is no development cooperation program of any substance between us and Sweden. There is no major trading relationship between us and Sweden, and no significant investment coming from Sweden to Ethiopia. It was not worthwhile to have an embassy [in Sweden]”. Diplomacy for Zenawi is striclty business. Without being too cynical, one could surmise that the terrorism charge against the two Swedish journalists is intended to provide a diversionary cover for Zenawi’s real agenda. Given Zenawi’s past M.O., it is manifest that he aims to use this opportunity to extract some major concessions from the Swedes: “If they want Persson and Schibbye freed, it’s gonna cost ’em. What are the Swedes willing to pay? How about reopneing the aid pipeline? After all, Ethiopia is the first country to have received Swedish aid back in 1954. How about some cash loans? Increased trade? Perhaps new investments? It is said that the largest investor in the whole of Sweden is an Ethiopian.” Let’s make a deal!
There is no way Zenawi could jail Persson and Schibbye for fifteen years as terrorists. He will galvanize Swedish and European Union public opinion against him personally and very possibly trigger devastating sanctions that will completely paralyze his regime. Even the Americans who have been turning a blind eye for all these years may finally take a look and tell Zenawi enough is enough. So, there is no question that after the kangaroo court circus is over Persson and Schibbye will be released. As usual, Zenawi will grandstand and declare the two journalists have been pardoned and released after they admitted guilt, expressed remorse and so on. The Swedes and some of the Western countries will play their part and congratulate him for doing the right thing and acting magnaimously; and he will continue with business as usual—more Ethiopian journalists will be jailed and threatened, dissidents harassed and opposition leaders persecuted. But the lesson remains the same: By manufacturing a bogus crisis, Zenawi, true to form, would have once again outwitted, outfoxed, outsmarted, outmaneuvered, outpoliticked, outtricked, outfinessed and outplayed his timorous Western benefactors. As the old saying goes, one has to give the devil his due for a job well done! Bravissimo!
Release all political prisoners in Ethiopia, now!