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Canadian held in Ethiopia continues to languish

By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen

The case of a Canadian citizen who has been held in an Ethiopian jail for almost two years — without trial or access to a lawyer — while other foreign prisoners are released is “hauntingly reminiscent” of Omar Khadr, says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

Bashir Makhtal, a former Toronto resident in his 40s, was fleeing from fighting in Somalia when he and dozens of other foreign nationals were arrested crossing into Kenya in late 2006. Mr. Makhtal was deported to Ethiopia, where he was born, though he has been a citizen since 1994.

Human rights advocates say Kenyan authorities illegally rendered approximately 90 foreign nationals from 18 countries to Ethiopia during two months in early 2007. Twenty-two have since disappeared. Ethiopia eventually admitted that it has the others in prison.

Most other foreign governments have successfully lobbied for the release of their citizens. Earlier this month, eight more prisoners were released, leaving Mr. Makhtal and a Kenyan man as the last remaining detainees.

“Bashir Makhtal and Omar Khadr share a very distressing similarity when it comes to the lack of willingness of the Canadian government to defend their rights,” Mr. Neve said. “Canada now stands as the only western country with a national still held at Guantanamo. All other western governments, like the U.K., Australia and France, who had nationals held at Guantanamo years ago, did the right thing — they spoke out about the injustice. They insisted their nationals be brought back home.”

Mr. Neve said aspects of the Makhtal case will be “sadly familiar” to Canadians who followed the story of Maher Arar, the Canadian computer engineer who was tortured in Syria after being rendered from the United States.

Ethiopia has accused Mr. Makhtal of terrorist activities, but has yet to present any evidence or bring formal charges.

A recent Human Rights Watch report on the Horn of Africa renditions quotes a detainee who saw Mr. Makhtal briefly in an Ethiopian prison in July 2007. He said the Canadian was being held in solitary confinement, looked very weak and “famished,” and had a deep cut on his leg.

Mr. Makhtal’s family believes he is in jail because he is the grandson of a founder of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which Canada says is a legal organization, but Ethiopia accuses of terrorist activities.

Said Maktal, who is Bashir’s cousin (but spells his surname differently) says their grandfather was deeply involved with the ONLF, but his cousin was too busy trading used clothing throughout the region to have any time for extremism.

“He’s a very hard-working person and he was supporting so many relatives back in the Ogaden,” said Mr. Maktal, 35, who lives in Hamilton. “I don’t believe that he had any involvement” with the ONLF.

In April 2007, Ethiopian authorities admitted they were holding Mr. Makhtal, but refused to allow Canadian diplomats to visit him until July 2008, after Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai went to Ethiopia to lobby for access. All subsequent requests for consular visits or access to the Ethiopian lawyer hired by Mr. Makhtal’s family have been refused.

“Bashir Makhtal has essentially been held in incommunicado for almost two years now,” said Jennifer Daskal, senior counter-terrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch in New York. “It’s absolutely essential that the Canadian government start making some noise and demanding loud and clear that the Ethiopian government must either transfer his case to a fair trial system and let him be represented by a lawyer and have consular rights, or they should immediately release him and repatriate him to Canada.”

Said Maktal has met officials from Foreign Affairs and lobbied politicians, including Ottawa MP John Baird. So far, Mr. Maktal said, he has heard promises the case will become “high profile,” but hasn’t seen any evidence the government is taking it seriously.

“I want the prime minister of Canada to make a personal intervention before it’s too late,” said Mr. Maktal, who believes the Ethiopian government will not feel pressured to act unless it hears directly from the prime minister. “Bashir’s condition is going down. This is unacceptable. How can you not have authority to visit your own citizen?”

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