Bashir Makhtal four years later: we must despair for other Canadians caught up in miscarriages of justice abroad.

Halkaan ka akhri

Four years ago Thursday, Kenyan authorities forced a Canadian citizen onto a plane and flew him, illegally, to Ethiopia. Bashir Makhtal is still in prison in Ethiopia despite the fact that Stephen Harper’s right-hand man has taken a personal interest in the case for more than two years.

“This is an important case, not just for Bashir but for the whole Somali community,” says Government House Leader John Baird, who adds that he’s been amazed at how many people approach him to ask him about it all over the country. There’s a demonstration on Makhtal’s behalf scheduled for noon Thursday in downtown Ottawa, following a press conference by his supporters.

Baird says there’s been a sustained effort on the part of public servants and politicians from more than one party to get justice for Makhtal. He travelled to Ethiopia in 2010 and met Makhtal in prison.

Those efforts have paid off in small victories along the way, he says, such as getting Makhtal’s trial transferred to civilian court. Yet Makhtal is still in prison. Baird says he’s seen no evidence that suggests he’s guilty of any crime.

“We will get him out,” Baird vows. “I am very committed to this.”

Makhtal was born in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and is ethnically Somali. He’s been a Canadian citizen since 1994. He was in Mogadishu, working as a trader and carrying a Canadian passport, when Ethiopia invaded in 2006. Makhtal fled to the Kenyan border, where he was arrested and held for a few weeks before that illegal flight to Ethiopia. At the time, Kenya was doing its bit for the war on terror by hastily rounding up and deporting refugees to various nasty regimes.

Makhtal’s grandfather was a founder of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which Ethiopia (but not Canada) considers a terrorist organization. Ethiopia has accused Makhtal of involvement in the ONLF and of supporting Somalia’s Islamists. It put him through a process that more or less meets a broad definition of the word “trial.” It seems prepared to keep Makhtal in prison until he dies.

Meanwhile, Makhtal’s cousin and wife are working passionately on his behalf here in Canada.

So, to sum up: Bashir Makhtal has had several high-profile MPs, including cabinet ministers, take up his case, even travelling to Ethiopia ostensibly on his behalf. He has articulate defenders, including family members, in Canada. The case against him is practically non-existent and his trial was transparently unfair. High-profile Canadian lawyer Lorne Waldman is involved in the case.

If a Canadian with that much support is still stuck in prison, I despair for the Canadians caught up in miscarriages of justice abroad who don’t have any advocates here.

I also wonder how Canada could have allowed Kenya to put Makhtal on that plane to a third country on Jan. 20, 2007. He’d been in Kenyan custody for three weeks; a spokesman says Canada’s department of foreign affairs became aware of the situation on Jan. 2. I find it hard to believe Kenya would have felt comfortable sending Makhtal to a third country, apparently without informing Canada, if Canada had made it crystal clear that it wouldn’t stand for a violation of Makhtal’s rights.

“I think there’s a real issue here, which is the politicization of consular protection,” says Waldman.

It’s possible Canada took a cautious wait-and-see position, hoping someone else would figure out if Makhtal was a terrorist before deciding on a course of action. Of course, it’s also possible Canada did stick up for Makhtal and just wasn’t able to stop Kenya from sending him to Ethiopia, a state known for torture and for its brutal tactics in the Ogaden dispute. I’m not sure which is the more disturbing possibility. It’s certainly true that even after high-ranking politicians started talking about his case, Canada hasn’t been able to get justice for Makhtal.

That’s odd, because in this relationship, Canada would seem to have the upper hand. In its wisdom, our government has chosen Ethiopia as a foreign-aid “country of focus.” We sent $146 million in total government assistance in 2008, making us one of Ethiopia’s major donors.

That money doesn’t and shouldn’t mean Canada always gets its way, but it ought to ensure that when Canada wants to talk about something, Ethiopia makes the time.

Canada invited Ethiopia to participate in the G20 summit last year, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to Toronto. When Baird was transport minister, Canada granted Ethiopia’s airline landing rights.

“Canada’s made all kinds of concessions to Ethiopia and Bashir’s still sitting there,” says Waldman.

Kenya and Ethiopia’s actions in this case suggest they don’t take Canada seriously.

Source: Ottawa Citizen

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