Martin Schibbye (journalist): “Sweden believed in Lundin”

Six months have passed since the start of the longest trial in Swedish history, which will last another two years. Time for a first assessment by one of its most assiduous observers, Martin Schibbye, who spent 438 days of his life in an Ethiopia jail for investigating oil firm Lundin accused of complicity in war crimes.

Martin Schibbye is a journalist, one of the few covering the Lundin trial in Sweden. Photo: Schibbye stands alone at the entrance to courtroom 34 in Stockholm.
Martin Schibbye is most of the time the only journalist following the Lundin trial, opened in Stockholm six months ago. He recalls that even at the time of the alleged crimes, "their activities in Sudan were not covered by the media". Photo : © Olivier Truc / Justice Info
5 min 46Approximate reading time

In the two rows of chairs reserved for the public at the back of courtroom 34 in Stockholm, only one Swedish journalist (along with a few jurists) is following the day-to-day progress of this trial, which for the first time sees two executives of Swedish oil company Lundin Oil (now Orrön Energy) accused of complicity in war crimes between 1997 and 2003 in what is now South Sudan.

Martin Schibbye's diligence is not only because of the website he founded in 2015, www.blankspot.se, which has set itself the mission of covering forgotten areas of the news. In July 2011, he set out with photographer Johan Persson to investigate Lundin Oil's activities in Ethiopia’s Ogaden conflict zone. But the two men were arrested by Ethiopian security forces and sentenced on terrorism charges to 11 years in jail, before being pardoned and released in September 2012, after 438 days in detention. "438 days" is also the title of the book they wrote and the film that was made following their misadventure.

"Business leaders are being prosecuted for complicity in serious war crimes. And it's frustrating to see that the trial is not being followed, except by a few law students and researchers," he says. Of the 70 or so days of the trial since September 5, 2023, Schibbye admits to having missed six. For the rest, he regularly publishes his lengthy accounts of the hearings, and feeds a WhatsApp group.

In the first few weeks, the prosecution had the floor. "Thanks to Lundin Oil security reports found in searches of its Geneva headquarters, the prosecutors made clear that what Lundin told journalists [at the time, about the incriminating facts] was one thing, but what they wrote internally was another," says Schibbye. In short, that the situation in "Block 5A", the concession granted to the oil company in Sudan, was much more serious than Lundin claimed.

NGOs and journalists on trial”

At the beginning of March 2024, the floor was given to lawyers of former Lundin Oil CEO Alexandre Schneiter, a Swiss geophysicist who joined the company in 1997 as exploration manager for Block 5A.

According to Schibbye, the lawyers’ aim is to discredit the reports of NGOs behind the trial, as well as certain journalists like Julie Flint, who helped to write a report for NGO Christian Aid while also writing articles for The Guardian and Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter. To this end, Schibbye points out, they cite elements of a Swedish public TV report by Bengt Nilsson, a Swedish freelance journalist "invited, paid for and accompanied" by Lundin Oil in Block 5A. "The defence skilfully shifted the focus from the oil company's case to that of the NGOs and journalists," says Schibbye.

He regrets "the lack of understanding on the part of the prosecution and defence of how journalism is practiced in a conflict zone. If you didn't go there with the SPLA [the South Sudanese rebel movement], you had to go there with the oil company. There was no other way,” he says. Schibbye speaks from experience, since he entered Ethiopia illegally with the help of Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels.

He cites interviews filmed in the presence of the oil firm’s guards along the road built by Lundin, in which Nilsson asked civilians whether the company was "good" or "bad". "It's not really independent journalism. Nor is it good to depend on the SPLA. Bengt Nilsson would have gained credibility by interviewing more refugees, for example from other regions. And of course, Julie Flint should also have interviewed the oil company or the Sudanese government.” Both journalists will be called to the witness stand in spring 2025. Schibbye himself has not been called as a witness, having not worked on Lundin's business in Sudan.

Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson arrive at Stockholm airport on 14 September 2012 after their release from an Ethiopian prison.
Swedish reporters Martin Schibbye (L) and Johan Persson on arrival at Stockholm airport, September 14, 2012. The two men had just spent 438 days in detention in Ethiopia, having entered the country illegally in connection with their investigation into the Lundin oil company activities. Photo : © Anders Wiklund / Scanpix Sweden / AFP

Clever defence strategy?

Since this autumn, Schibbye continues, “the defence has created an atmosphere where the question is: was Ian Lundin's intention in Sudan to kill civilians? No, it says, ‘the intention was to extract oil’". He thinks this strategy has been pursued in a clever way. "Instead of answering the specific allegations of Lundin Oil's cooperation with the [Sudanese] army, the defence asks the court: 'do you really believe that there was an intention to kill or to participate in these war crimes?’"

Schibbye believes the strategy has its limits. "If journalists have to choose sides to enter a conflict zone, so do oil companies. It's clear that Lundin Oil depended 100% on the Sudanese army. The defence tries to argue that the company was an outside observer, but this is untenable. Without the Sudanese army, Lundin Oil would not have been able to stay on site for an hour.”

For his part, Schibbye was never able to complete his report on Lundin Oil in Ethiopia. "The oilfield guards shot at us, arrested us, and we couldn't go on. So I never accused Lundin of any abuses in Ethiopia. But I warned that if they continued there, they ran a great risk of becoming complicit in this type of crime, because the conflict was of the same intensity".

Schibbye has to wait until November 2025 to see an old acquaintance in the witness box -- Carl Bildt, who was Sweden’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2014 and who negotiated his release from jail in Ethiopia. But above all, between 2000 and 2006, Bildt was a director and shareholder of Lundin, which earned him much criticism. "One might ask why, after his term as Prime Minister (1991-1994), he chose to sit on the board of a company like Lundin," says Schibbye.

He thinks this trial should not be seen through the strict lens of international law. "If the trial had taken place in The Hague, then the prosecutor would have had to prove direct intent, such as 'we, Lundin, wanted the army to clear the areas for our oil exploitation'. But Swedish law allows for the lowest level of intent, namely simple indifference to events. The prosecutor doesn't have to prove that you wanted it to happen. This will be one of the major legal issues to be dealt with. That's why the prosecutor has tried to explain what the situation was like in Sudan in 1997, and come back to it all the time to show that there were war crimes and that Lundin should have understood it would also be implicated by going in there."

Sweden believed in Lundin

The case goes beyond Lundin Oil, according to Schibbye. "It also tells something about Sweden. Lundin was cherished by small Swedish investors. Many people became very rich thanks to Lundin shares. All our big pension funds invested heavily in it, even when these accusations were known. In spite of everything, official Sweden maintained its investments, believed in these business leaders." Bildt's involvement on the board of directors is a case in point.

Schibbye points to the disinterest of the Swedish press at the time. "Far too few editorial offices sent reporters to Sudan during those years. Lundin's lawyers denounce a witch-hunt in the media. But the fact is that, at the time, its activities in Sudan were not covered by the media." Today, as the only journalist present at the trial most of the time, Schibbye thinks it's deserted because "it's as if the trial came from another era. This debate on corporate responsibility dates back 20 years, and we were talking about the fact that companies had the same responsibility as states and could also be judged. Perhaps that's why it hasn't drawn more attention”.

He also notes that civil society and NGOs took a risk by filing a complaint with elements that were not designed to stand the test in a court of law, but rather to mobilize public opinion, where the requirement for proof is not the same. The risk is that if the two directors are acquitted, the credibility of the NGOs will be undermined.

"There are moments when you think there's no doubt that Lundin and Schneiter will be acquitted, and then another day, you discover internal documents showing funds allocated by Lundin for hundreds of Sudanese soldiers around their facilities," he says. He never tires of these twists and turns, which are the lifeblood of the trial. But he regrets that the prosecution has not based its case on the testimonies or stories of refugees. "This type of personal voice is absent from the prosecution's case." However, he adds mischievously, "it is interesting to note that Lundin Oil did not call a single South Sudanese to testify on its behalf. You'd think that after all those years on the ground, there'd be someone who could come and say how great it was."

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