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A verdict is near for two Swedish journalists accused of terrorism in Ethiopia

They were embedded with a rebel group in eastern Ethiopia, press freedom groups say

The region they were in was declared off-limits by the government

CNN  — 

Two Swedish journalists charged with terrorism in Ethiopia will hear their verdict Wednesday, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. If they are found guilty they could face up to 15 years in prison.

Ethiopian troops captured Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye in July during an exchange of gunfire with a rebel group in the Ogaden, a prohibited region along the nation’s border with Somalia, according to state media.

Press freedom groups say the two were embedded with Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels while working on a story about the region.

Journalists and aid workers are prohibited from entering the Ogaden, which human rights organizations say is rampant with human rights abuses against ethnic Somalis by rebels and Ethiopian troops.

“The Ethiopian army’s answer to the rebels has been to viciously attack civilians in the Ogaden. These widespread and systematic atrocities amount to crimes against humanity,” says Georgette Ganon of Human Rights Watch.

Ethiopians officials have accused the journalists of being accomplices to terrorism after the government declared the Ogaden National Liberation Front a terrorist group in June.

Persson and Schibbye are both facing two counts: one for entering the country illegally and a second for providing assistance to a terrorist organization, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Both journalists have pleaded guilty to entering the country illegally through Somalia without accreditation, according to the committee, which says Ethiopian officials deny media access without government minders.

Both Persson and Schibbye are contributors to the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent. In a statement issued in September, Kontinent said that its journalists do not take sides or participate in any conflict and report under international rights regarding freedom of the press, which it believes should be upheld by any government.

“We at Kontinent think it is of most importance to report from closed regions where human rights violations are a being a reported problem,” it said. “These regions are often closed to journalists by regimes that commit these atrocities. The Ogaden region in Ethiopia seems to be one of those regions in the world because the government of Ethiopia repeatedly have arrested journalists trying to enter the region.”

The trial against the journalists turned into a fight for press freedom in Ethiopia, according to international journalists’ organizations. In a letter sent to the United Nations, Reporters without Borders accused Ethiopia of desecrating its anti-terrorism law to lessen press freedom and penalize free speech.

“In the name of the fight against terrorism, the government muzzles dissident and critical voices, thus abusing human rights and fundamental freedoms,” wrote the secretary general of Reporters with Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard.

Tuesday the government freed three Ethiopian journalists who had been in custody for several days after criticizing the government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The number of journalists imprisoned worldwide has increased by more than 20 percent to its highest level since the mid 1990s according to an annual report by the organization.