Skip to content


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?”

Gov't of Canada is pressing Ethiopia on Canadian prisoner

A Canadian citizen who has been imprisoned in Ethiopia for 18 months without being formally charged is being treated humanely and is in “good health”, says the parliamentary secretary to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was in Ethiopia earlier this year.

But if there isn’t any action on the case soon, Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai says he will return to Ethiopia this summer to press officials again.

Obhrai flew to Ethiopia this spring to meet with the government to try to lobby for consular access to Bashir Makhtal, a former Torontonian who was arrested in late December 2006 on the Kenya-Somalia border, held in Kenya and then deported to Somalia and on to Ethiopia in late January 2007. Makhtal – who has been held incommunicado by the Ethiopian government since he was rendered there – is originally from the Ogaden, a part of Ethiopia where his grandfather started a rebel separatist movement.

Obhrai was in Kenya in March on Canadian government business when he flew to Ethiopia to meet with the state secretary for foreign affairs to ask for consular access for Makhtal. During his visit, Obhrai said, he met with Dr. Takeda Alemu and expressed the government’s concern over the case.

But for Said Maktal, Bashir’s cousin, these latest moves by Obhrai are not enough. Nor does he believe the Canadian government has been forceful enough in intervening with the Ethiopian government on his cousin’s behalf.

“The government of Canada is not doing enough for this case,” Maktal said today in an interview with the Star. “After all, the person sitting behind bars is my cousin – who is not getting any (consular) access from his own embassy, not getting access for a lawyer and not being treated, to me, as a human being.”

Maktal also believes that his cousin isn’t getting the same kind of treatment as other Canadians who have been imprisoned in foreign countries, pointing to the case of Brenda Martin. “I would love the Canadian government to pressure the Ethiopian government more. I’d like the Prime Minister, Mr. Stephen Harper, to talk to the government of Ethiopia.”

Obhrai said in his meeting in March he urged the Ethiopian government to follow due process and protect Makhtal’s human rights. Before he left the meeting he hand-delivered a letter from Helena Guergis, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. The letter, he said, also urged the Ethiopian government to provide consular access to Makhtal and to protect his human rights.

“We had a frank discussion on the issue that Mr. Makhtal was a Canadian citizen and why it is important for us to have consular access,” said Obhrai. “He assured me that Mr. Makhtal has been treated humanely and he would convey the message to his government. He also assured me Bashir was in good health.”

Obhrai also urged the Ethiopian government to proceed with due process – either charge Makhtal or release him.

On April 23, Obhrai telephoned the Ethiopian state secretary for foreign affairs to press the case again, repeating his concern on consular access for Makhtal, the parliamentary secretary said. But there still has been no action and Makhtal has not had any consular access, nor has he been charged or allowed access to a lawyer.

The Calgary MP said he is now waiting for word from the Canadian ambassador in Ethiopia – who is on top of the file – before he proceeds any further. But he does plan to phone the Ethiopian state secretary for foreign affairs again – to plead the Canadian government’s case.

“We have asked the ambassador what the Ethiopians are doing and I plan to go later this summer,” he said. “We are waiting for them to move forward. They’ve assured us they will. I shall be making another trip to Ethiopia pending what the ambassador says and how it is moving.”

By Debra Black,