Two Swedish journalists, including Johan Persson, pictured with camera, were found guilty of supporting terrorism in Ethiopia.

Story highlights

NEW: A long prison term in Ethiopia could be a death sentence, the journalists' agency says

The journalists' attorney says they are "very disappointed" by the verdict

The judge says the two failed to prove their innocence

Human rights groups say Ethiopia failed to provide justice

CNN  — 

Two Swedish journalists who were found guilty in Ethiopia of supporting terrorism were sentenced to 11 years in jail Tuesday, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said.

“Our belief was that the court would think they were journalists and they would be released. This is what the prime minister has said before,” ministry spokesman Anders Jörle said. “It is not fair that they are sentenced since they are journalists on a journalistic mission.”

“They are innocent and have been convicted because of their journalistic work,” said Tomas Olsson, the journalists’ Swedish attorney. “We are very disappointed.”

A court convicted Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye last week.

Ethiopian troops captured Persson and 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.

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

Olsson said the 11-year sentence was the lowest possible one for the crimes they were convicted of.

“The prosecutor sought 18 years imprisonment, so if you look at it that way, it is a positive thing that they got the lowest possible sentence,” Olsson said. “But since they are innocent, they are very disappointed.”

Schibbye and Persson have until January 10 to decide if they want to appeal – a process that could take up to two years – or if they want to seek a pardon.

However, Olsson said, if they want to apply for a pardon the two have to admit the crimes, “and since they are not guilty then this is not something they’d want to do.”

Fredric Alm at the Sweden-based photojournalism agency Kontinent, for which the two men work, said they “have a very hard decision ahead of them” in considering whether to appeal or ask for a pardon, but that an 11-year sentence in an Ethiopian prison “could effectively be a death sentence for them.”

Alm added: “The purpose of this verdict is to scare away all journalists from reporting in the Ogaden. But as journalists we have to continue reporting from closed areas. It’s a very sad day for press freedom. It’s a very sad day but it didn’t come as a surprise for us. It’s still a political verdict; it’s not a real trial. It is the (Ethiopian) prime minister who has decided.”

Persson and Schibbye were convicted on two counts: entering the country illegally and providing assistance to a terrorist organization, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

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

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

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

Reporters Without Borders criticized the court’s decision.

“What are the Ethiopian authorities hoping to achieve?” the international secretariat of the group asked. “To discourage anyone from visiting the Ogaden, as these two journalists did? To send a warning signal to the national and international media about the danger of receiving a long jail sentence on a terrorism charge if they attempt any potentially embarrassing investigative reporting?”

“Our starting point is and remains that they have been in the country on a journalistic mission,” Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said in a statement last week. “They should be freed as soon as possible and be able to rejoin their families in Sweden.”

But presiding judge Shemsu Sirgaga said the two “have not been able to prove that they did not support terrorism.”

“They have shown that they are esteemed journalists, but we cannot conclude that someone with a good reputation does not engage in criminal acts,” Sirgaga said.

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

“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.

Amnesty International called for their release ahead of Tuesday’s sentencing.

“There is nothing to suggest that the two men entered Ethiopia with any intention other than conducting their legitimate work as journalists. The government chooses to interpret meeting with a terrorist organization as support of that group and therefore a terrorist act,” said Claire Beston with the human rights group.

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.

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.

CNN’s Per Nyberg and Sarah Jones contributed to this report.