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438 Days Imprisoned in Ethiopia: Journalist Recounts Facing Arrest, Mock Execution & Terror Charges

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While President Obama visited Ethiopia on Monday, he made a passing reference to press freedom, calling on the Ethiopian government to “open additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices.” The Committee to Protect Journalists has described Ethiopia as one of the leading jailers of journalists on the continent. At least 11 journalists and bloggers are currently in prison. Six others were released just before Obama’s visit. We look at the remarkable story of two Swedish journalists who traveled to Ethiopia in 2011 to report on the actions of the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil in the Ogaden region, where there has been a fight for independence since the 1970s. Five days after crossing the border from Somalia to Ethiopia, the journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were shot and captured by the Ethiopian army. “We were both shot during the arrest. We were kept in the desert,” Schibbye said. “They brought in some Steven Spielberg figure, who turned out to be the vice president of the region, who made a mockumentary about what happened when we were arrested. They brought in fake rebels, who they gave guns, and it was a total surreal episode where we, under gunpoint, had to participate in the movie that was supposed to be shown on Ethiopian state television and also used in court to sentence us for support of terrorism.” Schibbye and Persson ended up spending over a year in prison, which they chronicle in their book, “438 Days: How Our Quest to Expose the Dirty Oil Business in the Horn of Africa Got Us Tortured, Sentenced as Terrorists and Put Away in Ethiopia’s Most Infamous Prison.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. While President Obama visited Ethiopia Monday, he made a passing reference to press freedom, calling on the Ethiopian government to, quote, “open additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices.” Well, the Committee to Protect Journalists has described Ethiopia as one of the leading jailers of journalists on the continent. At least 11 journalists and bloggers are currently in prison. Six others were released just before Obama’s visit.

Today, we turn to the remarkable story of two Swedish journalists who traveled to Ethiopia in 2011 to report on the actions of the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil in the Ogaden region, where there has been a fight for independence since the '70s. Lundin Oil is well known in Sweden in part because one of its past board members is Carl Bildt, Sweden's former prime minister and foreign secretary. Five days after crossing the border from Somalia to Ethiopia, the journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, were shot and captured by the Ethiopian army. They ended up spending over a year in prison, which they chronicle in their book, 438 Days: How Our Quest to Expose the Dirty Oil Business in the Horn of Africa Got Us Tortured, Sentenced as Terrorists and Put Away in Ethiopia’s Most Infamous Prison.

I had a chance to interview Martin Schibbye last year in Sweden at the Almedalen political festival in Visby, an island off of Sweden. I asked him to describe what happened to him.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Well, the short version is, I was jailed for doing my job as a journalist in a country where journalism is criminalized. The longer version goes that me and the photographer, Johan Persson, were supposed to investigate a Swedish oil company active in the Ogaden region. And in this oil company, the Swedish foreign minister had been on the board. And they were exploring oil in a region which is war-torn, in a region where refugees are fleeing in numbers, and in a region where there are reports of gross human rights abuses. So there were two sides to this story: The oil company would say that, well, exploring oil will benefit the region; the refugees were saying, no, the oil companies make the situation worse. And we didn’t want to do a on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-and-then-time-will-tell story. We wanted to see for ourselves what is true or not, and kind of use our feet more than Google and wanted to go into this region and see how was the situation there for the civilian population.

AMY GOODMAN: Especially for an American audience, I don’t think the conflict in Ethiopia is very well known. Can you explain what the Ogaden region is?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: The Ogaden region is in the east of Ethiopia, and it’s a region inhabited by ethnical Somalis. So it has longtime been debated and fought over between Somalia and Ethiopia. And currently the region is within the borders of Ethiopia. But the inhabitants feel colonized. They feel they are misrepresented within the Ethiopian political system. So there is a guerrilla movement fighting for independence, attacking foreign oil companies. And the problem is also that the region is closed. Ethiopia doesn’t allow any journalists to enter. The U.N. are not allowed to enter. The Red Cross has been kicked out. Doctors Without Borders have been kicked out. So it’s an area which it’s kind of a white area on the map. Few reports get out of what is really happening there. So that’s why it was crucial as a journalist to go there and give people living in this area a voice and see what they have to say about oil exploration and about foreign companies coming together with the Ethiopian military to explore oil.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain further, Martin, who the oil company was and its connection to the current foreign minister, Carl Bildt, of Sweden.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Well, Lundin Petroleum is the name of the big company, and they had a daughter company called Africa Oil. And Carl Bildt has been on the board of Lundin Petroleum. So that was the connection. At the time, 2011, when we went to do this story, he was no longer on the board.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he on the board of Lundin, of this oil company?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Well, after his—many people believed that he had left politics. He went into business, and he became a board member. I think you’ll have to ask him about that. It’s a very special company, and it’s known for kind of being non-ethical. They did business with South Africa during apartheid. They were kicked out of Congo by the U.N. They were doing business with Assad’s Syria. So it’s an oil company that goes to areas where no other oil companies enter, so it’s a very special company to be in the board of.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to you.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: So, basically, what Ethiopia did when they arrested me and Johan in the Ogaden region was to violate every international rule there is. They didn’t take us to an embassy. They didn’t give us medical care for our gun wounds. We were both shot during the arrest. We were kept in the desert. And instead, they brought in some Steven Spielberg figure, who turned out to be the vice president of the region, who made a mockumentary about what happened when we were arrested. They brought in fake rebels, who they gave guns, and it was a total surreal episode where we, under gunpoint, had to participate in the movie that was supposed to be shown on Ethiopian state television and also used in court to sentence us for support of terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, go back a step. Describe how you were arrested, how you were captured, how you came into the country and what happened next.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Well, we entered into the region with a smuggler from Somalia, and we met up with a guerrilla group that were supposed to be our guides and take us to the oil fields, so that we could interview civilians there. And the first days and nights when we walk in the Ogaden desert are quite eerie. We pass refugees who are fleeing on their way to the refugee camps in Kenya. We pass surrendered huts, where people have lived until recently. We pass people who have been subjected to torture from the Ethiopian military. And we feel that this is really—the conflict level here is very, very high. There’s really a story to tell.

But after three days of walking, we are ambushed by the Ethiopian military, and we are immediately shot. I am shot through the shoulder, and the photographer is shot through his arm. So, we have no other option but to raise our hands in the sky and shout, “Media! Media! International press!” And then we are arrested. And at that point, we believe that we will be kicked out, because that happened to New York Times when they were arrested in Ogaden. It has happened to several other journalists who have been arrested in this area.

But Ethiopia wants to make an example and to scare off other foreign journalists from entering the region, and also—and I think most importantly—send a message to their own journalists: “Look what we can do to these two Swedish guys; imagine what we can do to you.” So they wanted to inflict fear in the Ethiopian society.

So, then we are led through these four or five horrible days in the desert, when they fabricate evidence against us under gunpoint, and to make us cooperate, they also arrange a mock execution, which is arranged by the vice president in the region, and he’s a member of the Ethiopian Parliament. He arranges a mock execution where we are forced to walk towards the horizon, and there is a firing squad behind us. And I’m told to stop, to turn around, and he says, “This is your last chance. Admit that you are cooperating with the terrorists, or you will be shot.” And then they fire in the bush next to me. And from the sound, I kind of fall down. And then I get up, and I brush the dust off. And then a film camera comes up, and another interrogation takes place. So, it was really a violation of all the legal protocols that you could think of.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you say what they wanted you to say?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: No, they wanted us to basically say that we were there to support the rebels. No, we never said that. We said that we are Swedish journalists, and we are here to do our job. But just being there, just talking to this group, was enough, according to the Ethiopian terrorism law, to sentence us. And it was very clear when we were brought to the federal police station, and we found out who was in the neighboring cell, who was in the cell to the left or to the right and in front of us. It was no criminals. They were young journalists, activists, bloggers, politicians, different community leaders. And then we really could feel that we had ended up in something that was just bigger, that was much bigger than two Swedish journalists just violating some visa.

AMY GOODMAN: This mockumentary, as you call it—

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —this fake documentary, when they were filming you and said they would shoot you if you didn’t say you were working with terrorists—

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —did you then say, “I am working with terrorists.”

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: No, no, no.

AMY GOODMAN: You wouldn’t say it.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: No.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what did they do with this film?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: They made a long mockumentary about it. And first of all, they showed it in court, and they said that the people on this film are the people that you walked with, which they were not. All the rebels we walked with ran away, so they were kind of fake rebels. And they also sentenced these fake rebels to 17 years in prison. So it was basically used as a fabricated evidence in court, and it was also used the Ethiopian state television to kind of show Ethiopia that these were two Swedish terrorists who had entered their country to support terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to you in prison?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: I mean, the first—the first month, before we were charged, were the most difficult, when we were kept in solitary confinement, and we were interrogated and threatened with the death sentence or with life in prison. And it was kind of a—you had to win a battle against yourself every day and kind of take a teaspoon of cement every morning and just to try and think that, well, they may take my physical freedom, they may take my shoelaces, even my shoes, my belt, my pen and paper, but there is one thing they can’t take from me, and that is to decide, I mean, who I am. And I am a journalist. So it’s just another day at the office. I tried to live in that bubble, and kind of, “OK, how big is this cell? How would I describe this cell in my future writing?” and try to start communicating with the other prisoners, and try to never give up that core thing within you, who you are. They could never take that from you, even though you were handcuffed and in a dark room. So, by thinking as a journalist, I mean, I survived mentally and was able to communicate with the other jailed journalists, the local journalists. And they gave me a lot of strength and kind of explained what was going on in Ethiopia.

We have to remember that this was also 2011. I mean, the Arabic Spring was raging in Egypt. I mean, you had Tunisia. You had Syria. Gaddafi hadn’t fallen yet in Libya. And, of course, a country which has 99.6 percent of the seats in the Parliament, they will look to North Africa with fear, and decided to rather act than being acted upon. So, we ended up in a major crackdown against free speech. And all of the local Ethiopian journalists and politician that were arrested at this time, they are still in jail. They are still in the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to communicate with your cameraman?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: During the time you were in solitary?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: No, no.

AMY GOODMAN: So you had no idea what was happening to him.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: No. And they tried to, of course, play us against each other.

AMY GOODMAN: You were both shot.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: We were both shot.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were both dealing with your injuries.

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Yes, yes. We were denied also proper medical care. We had a way to communicate after a while, and while knocking on the door through a certain kind of Swedish way of knocking, we could—I could understand that he was there and that he was alive.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the Swedish way of knocking?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: I don’t know. It was something like this. [knocks, Swedishly] And then he would answer in the same way, and I would know that, “Whew! He’s alive. I’m not alone.”

AMY GOODMAN: The video that was made to falsely implicate you, that was shown in Sweden, as well?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the response here?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: I think, in the beginning, it was a lot of confusion. I mean, journalists kind of quoted—they had this one-hand-on-the-other-hand perspective, so they would kind of see the minister of information in Ethiopia as a reliable source, in the beginning. After a while, these things changed, and they definitely changed when one of the people responsible of making this video—his name is Abdullahi Hussein—he felt that this is wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was he working for?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: He was working for the president of the region and for the vice president, and he was head of the kind of the communications department. He decided to become a whistleblower. So he took the original film from us in the desert, together with a lot of other material which shows atrocities, torture, the Ethiopian military committing atrocities in the region, and he left with—risking his life, left everything and went to Kenya and managed to get in contact with a journalist at the Swedish Television. So, after our release, the whole kind of material was shown. And in this, when the whole material was shown, you could see how everything was rigged.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Martin, about when you learned you were going to be freed and what that release was like for you?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: We were called up in the loudspeaker, and, yeah, the Swedish ambassador was there to meet us and to take us out of prison. And there was just one hurdle left, and that was that the Ethiopian state television wanted us to make an interview, the interview they didn’t succeed in doing in the desert. And, basically, we had—we could have said no to that and go back and take our 11 years, and we wouldn’t survive that, or we would say to the Ethiopian journalist that we apologize and accepted guilt. And then we were—they checked the interview with their information department, and then we were released and sent back to Sweden.

But, I mean, I’m—I’m free from the prison, but I’m not—I will never be free from the memories. I’m not free from the sounds. It doesn’t go a day that I don’t think of all the colleagues who are there. I mean, especially the sounds, the screams, when people—kind of the first screams, you really remember, because those were always the worst. And then, eventually, the abused prisoner was always silent. But the first scream before the first stroke hit, those screams you never forget. And those will haunt me for the rest of my life and be a part of me.

But it also—I think that also this experience makes me a better journalist. I mean, usually, you go and you do a story, and then you go to a hotel and you take your beer and that’s it. Now, we went and we did a story, which was supposed to be about oil, but it turned out to be about ink, about press freedom, and we slept on the concrete floor with—in a prison with 8,000 inmates, and we didn’t go home the next day. We stayed, and we stayed, and we stayed. And we stayed for 438 days. And, of course, we were always somehow tourists in that environment. We had our embassy. We had our Swedish passports. But still, I went from just being someone who’s standing and looking at something, and also I was, I mean, participating in something. And those experiences and really seeing the conditions of those prisoners and talking to them and sharing life stories with them, that makes me a better journalist.

AMY GOODMAN: And here at Almedalen, we have passed the foreign minister, Carl Bildt, several times, just walking down the street. Since you were freed, have you spent time with the foreign minister?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: I met him briefly, and we have been—our message to him has been to learn the name of the jailed that are still in the Kaliti prison and to work for their release—I mean, especially Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Eskinder Nega and many others, colleagues who are still there. We have been encouraging him to raise that issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And they were doing what as journalists? What were they investigating?

MARTIN SCHIBBYE: Their crime is just writing about their reality. It doesn’t take an investigative report to get you in jail in Ethiopia. It just takes some criticism of the government. And especially one of them, Reeyot Alemu, she’s suffering from cancer in one of her breasts in the prison. And I remember, at one point, she—I was able to read a small note that she sent us, and she wrote that her name was Reeyot Alemu. She wrote why she became a journalist, that she wanted to write about the injustice she saw in Ethiopia, and that that decision had led her to prison. And she said that, “Please, please, Martin, if you’re released before me, tell the world I’m a journalist, I’m not a terrorist.” And, I mean, doing that is kind of the only way to live with this experience, I mean, to try and put the searchlight on that prison and on Ethiopia and on the colleagues that are still there and still suffering just for doing their job. I mean, their only crime is courage. And I’m proud that there are such colleagues in the world who’s prepared to pay the highest price for this profession.

AMY GOODMAN: Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye. He and Johan Persson wrote about their jailing in Ethiopia in the book titled 438 Days: How Our Quest to Expose the Dirty Oil Business in the Horn of Africa Got Us Tortured, Sentenced as Terrorists and Put Away in Ethiopia’s Most Infamous Prison. I interviewed Martin last year in Sweden. Earlier this month, Reeyot Alemu, the Ethiopian journalist Schibbye mentioned during the interview, was released from prison after four years in jail on terrorism charges. In an interview with The New York Times, she said about the Ethiopian government, quote, “They just want to pretend in front of Obama and the international community that they are democratic and trying to improve human rights conditions.” Special thanks to Cassandra Lizaire and John Hamilton.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. Stay with us.

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