Jerome Starkey, Africa Correspondent
Two Swedish journalists sentenced to 11 years in prison for entering Ethiopia with a banned rebel group have been pardoned with almost 2,000 other prisoners, raising hopes that Addis Ababa’s despotic approach to political dissent may be drawing to a close.
A government official said that the late Pime Minister, Meles Zenawi, pardoned the men before he died last month.
His regime, which was praised for overseeing an economic renaissance in Ethiopia, was also heavily criticised for using draconian anti-terrorism laws to suffocate legitimate political dissent.
Johan Persson, a photographer, and Martin Schibbye, a reporter, have already spent more than 12 months in jail after their arrest in July 2011 with members of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
Their case – and dozens like it – prompted fierce criticism from human rights groups and foreign governments. Human Rights Watch said that the regime in Addis Ababa was using “the law’s most pernicious provisions … to criminalise free expression and peaceful dissent”.
Mr Zenawi dismissed the claims. He also denied that his regime was manipulating foreign aid to starve out political opponents. His armed forces are accused of using rape, murder and widespread violence to enforce a programme of forced relocation affecting more than 1.5 million semi-nomadic farmers.
A government spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, told news agencies in Addis Ababa today that the Swedes were among 1,900 people due to be released.
“Some 1,900 prisoners have been pardoned and are scheduled to be released in the coming days,” the source told Reuters. “The Swedish journalists are part of the group.
“It was never an intention of the Government to see them languish in jail,” the Ethiopian official added.
Mr Schibbye’s wife, Linnea, said that she was awaiting confirmation from the Swedishi Government, which is yet to make any comment.
Mr Zenawi had questioned the Swedes’ credentials and accused them of being “messenger boys of a terrorist organisation”. But in February, before ill health obscured him from the public eye, he said he was considering a pardon for politicians and journalists imprisoned under the 2009 anti-terror laws.
It is traditional to release prisoners on a national holiday, and particularly on Ethiopian New Year, which falls on Tuesday.