As the eighth anniversary of the rendition and imprisonment of Canadian citizen Bashir Makhtal passes virtually unnoticed, his family members, supporters and Amnesty International are begging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to step in and directly negotiate with the Ethiopian government for his release.
“He’s still languishing in an Ethiopian prison cell, following a deeply unfair trial and appeal process and facing a life prison sentence,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. “The fact we’re marking yet another unfortunate anniversary of Bashir Makhtal’s arrest and imprisonment … underscores the need for something different, and in our view that something has to be Prime Minister Harper’s personal involvement.”
Makhtal’s Canadian lawyer, Lorne Waldman, said that “it makes sense to escalate the representations to the highest level.”
“My experience … in the (Maher) Arar file, for example, is when the prime minister intervened, Arar was finally freed,” said Waldman, referring to the Ottawa engineer arrested in New York in 2002 and deported to Syria, where he was jailed and tortured. “There is certainly a precedent for that type of intervention and I think this is a case that deserves it — an innocent Canadian languishing in jail in a country where people don’t get due process.”
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department has been involved with the case for eight years — and John Baird took an early interest long before he was the foreign affairs minister, proclaiming Makhtal’s innocence. He even travelled to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and met with Makhtal.
Two years ago there was a brief glimmer of hope with the possibility of a prison transfer. But last year that deal was finally rejected by Makhtal, a 46-year-old who lived and worked in Toronto before moving back to Africa in 2002.
Waldman said his client rejected the deal because he would have had to continue serving a minimum of five more years in a Canadian prison for crimes he insists were trumped up by the Ethiopian government. Makhtal, he said, was concerned that making a deal would mean “recognizing the legitimacy of the legal process in Ethiopia, which everyone said was completely unfair.”
With that possibility gone, Makhtal’s family and advocates are once more hoping to turn up the heat on Ottawa. They are particularly concerned about his health problems resulting from a severe beating.
Makhtal recently told family members, who visit him in prison, that he was beaten unconscious at the Kenyan airport for resisting being put on a plane to Ethiopia in 2007. It is unclear whether he sustained additional injuries or mistreatment in Ethiopian custody.
The Somali community in Ottawa — the bulk of whom live in Baird’s riding — along with the Free Makhtal group, wants some answers. They’ve called a town-hall meeting for Jan. 31 and invited Baird with the hopes of convincing him to ask Harper to intervene. It is not known if Baird will attend.
The Toronto Star asked the foreign affairs minister for comment on the case. Adam Hodge, press secretary for Baird, replied: “Bashir Makhtal’s case continues to be a priority. The Department of Foreign Affairs will continue to raise the case of Mr. Makhtal with Ethiopian authorities, and provide him regular consular assistance to ensure his health and well-being are attended to.”
Diana Khaddaj, a spokesperson for the department, also emphasized that “the government of Canada will continue to advocate on behalf of Bashir Makhtal.” She said privacy laws limit what the department can discuss.
The request that Harper negotiate Makhtal’s freedom is not new, but Said Maktal, a cousin of the imprisoned man, hopes this time he will listen.
“I know Minister John Baird was working hard on Bashir’s case,” said Maktal. “But sometimes every case has different weight. This case of Bashir Makhtal really needs our prime minister, Stephen Harper, to get involved.”
In previous such requests, he said officials repeatedly told him the prime minister doesn’t get involved. But Said Maktal believes this isn’t true, pointing to the Canadian couple Ken and Julia Garratt, arrested in China last year. Harper is said to have raised the issue of their detention during high-level meetings with Chinese leaders.
“To me, as a Canadian citizen and a taxpayer in this country, I see our prime minister is picking and choosing who to help and who not to help,” said Maktal. “And this is really sad.
“This is the same prime minister that said … it is the duty of the government to stand up for Canadian citizens if they are in need of help. Where is that duty? He’s not fulfilling his promise that he would stand up for the rights of a Canadian citizen.”
Bashir Makhtal has been serving a life sentence in Kaliti prison in Addis Ababa since being convicted of terrorism in 2009. An ethnic Somali, he was initially arrested on the Kenya-Somalia border on Dec. 30, 2006, after fleeing Mogadishu and the fall of the Islamic Courts Union, the Islamist group that controlled the city.
He was questioned in Nairobi and put on a secret flight to Ethiopia, where he was eventually charged with several counts of terrorism for allegedly being a ringleader of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnic Somali group formed to fight for independence in the oil-rich region.
Makhtal has always denied the charges, saying his only connection to the group was that Makhtal Dahir, his grandfather, was one of the co-founders.