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Three years later, Canadian businessman languishes in Ethiopian jail
News 
By Louisa Taylor, Ottawa Citizen January 2, 2010

Handout photo of Bashir Makhtal, Canadian citizen held in Ethiopian jail since January, 2007.

 

Handout photo of Bashir Makhtal, Canadian citizen held in Ethiopian jail since January, 2007.
Photograph by: File , Handout

OTTAWA — Three years ago last week, Bashir Makhtal was arrested at a Kenyan border post, one of thousands fleeing fighting in Somalia.

Three weeks later, the Canadian businessman was shackled and forced onto a night flight to Ethiopia, along with dozens of other foreign nationals. Once in Addis Ababa, he was placed in solitary confinement in a military prison.

Makhtal was held with no access to a lawyer, no access to Canadian diplomats, no charges laid against him.

Three years later, Makhtal is still in jail, but much has changed. Of the almost 100 foreign nationals illegally deported to Ethiopia during the same period, only Makhtal and a Kenyan man remain in detention.

The Toronto man, 41, is now in a civilian prison and receives regular visits from relatives, as well as sporadic access to his lawyer and consular officials. Last August, following what Amnesty International called a “political trial” with “flimsy” evidence, Makhtal was convicted of terror-related charges and later sentenced to life in prison. Last month, his appeal was rejected by the Ethiopian Supreme Court.

But some things haven’t changed: Bashir Makhtal’s insistence that he’s innocent, and his family’s dogged efforts to bring him back to Canada.

“His only hope now is the Government of Canada,” says Said Maktal, Bashir Makhtal’s cousin and main advocate. (They share a surname but spell it differently.)

“The government told us to follow the rules and regulations, but we didn’t see a fair trial at any stage. The message now is: we need action.”

That action might be coming sooner rather than later, according to John Baird, federal minister of transportation and infrastructure. Baird took an interest in the case in late 2008 after being lobbied by Somali-Canadian constituents. He’s met with the Ethiopian ambassador to Canada and the Ethiopian foreign minister, and has consulted the Makhtal family numerous times.

Now Baird says he is preparing to go to Addis Ababa this month. Although no date has been set, Baird already has his visa and Lawrence Cannon, the minister of foreign affairs, spoke to his Ethiopian counterpart last week to make Baird’s visit official.

“I want to meet senior officials to say that this is a priority for the Canadian government,” said Baird. “We have a respectful disagreement with the Ethiopians on this case and we’re hoping to get it resolved as quickly as possible.”

A Canadian citizen since 1994, Makhtal is ethnically Somali, born in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. His supporters say he is being persecuted because of his grandfather. Makhtal Dahir was one of the founders of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group Ethiopia considers a terrorist organization but Canada does not. Ethiopia claims Bashir Makhtal is a leader of the ONLF, which Makhtal denies.

Foreign Affairs officials won’t comment on the specifics of the case, but have said from the beginning that diplomats have made numerous representations on his behalf. Deepak Obhrai, a Calgary MP and parliamentary secretary to Cannon, travelled to Ethiopia in 2008 to discuss the case — more than a year after Makhtal’s illegal rendition.

“I have seen no evidence that he has done anything wrong,” Baird told a town-hall meeting he attended last February with cabinet colleague Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship and immigration. Citing “big mistakes” made on the political side in the case of Canadian software engineer Maher Arar, who was tortured in Syria, Baird said: “We are determined as cabinet ministers, MPs and as Canadians that we’re not going to let those things happen again.”

Makhtal’s lawyer — who used to represent Maher Arar — says Baird needs to follow through.

“Each step of the way we hoped that maybe now Bashir would be acquitted or expelled and each step of the way we were disappointed,” says Lorne Waldman. “Now we’re at the end of the road. Minister Baird has repeatedly said to us the Canadian government believes Bashir is innocent, so at this point we’re waiting for the government to move forward with action.”

Waldman says Canada’s $80 million in aid to Ethiopia and its business ties ought to be enough leverage to persuade the Ethiopian government to release Makhtal.

Said Maktal, a lab technician in Hamilton, has worked relentlessly to free his cousin. He has also paid for numerous relatives to leave Ethiopia, to escape what they say is persecution for being related to Makhtal.

“Last year I got about 16 family members out of Ethiopia and they’re living in a refugee camp in Kenya now,” says Maktal.

Bashir Makhtal’s eldest brother Hassan, 60, was in jail from early 2007 until last fall, when he was released. Family members say he died soon after release as a result of torture while in prison.

“They wanted information on Bashir so they went after his family,” says Maktal. “Two of Hassan’s sons and one daughter were also arrested, and one of the sons is still in prison.”

Relatives living in Ethiopia report that Bashir shows no obvious signs of torture during their visits, but Maktal says the Ethiopian government prevents his cousin from speaking freely. On the occasions Canadian diplomats are allowed to visit, says Maktal, “there’s always an Ethiopian guard in the room who speaks English. We can’t call that ‘free access’ — there’s no freedom to speak from the heart.”

After the Ethiopian Supreme Court rejected Makhtal’s appeal in December, Baird assured the family he would now make plans to go to Ethiopia, says Maktal.

“I’m very thankful to John Baird for how much effort he’s putting into the case, but as a family we want to see more,” says Maktal. “It’s time for Canada to get serious and bring my cousin home.”

Ottawa Citizen
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

http://www.canada.com/news/Three+years+later+Canadian+businessman+languishes+
Ethiopian+jail/2400465/story.html


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