The frustrated family of Bashir Makhtal, sentenced yesterday to life in prison in Ethiopia, is demanding that Canada take action to motivate Addis Ababa to rethink its treatment of the Canadian citizen.
"The time for diplomacy is done," said Said Maktal. "I believe this is the time we need to take action."
Said Maktal, Mr. Makhtal's cousin, said he hopes to meet this week with federal Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and with Transport Minister John Baird, both of whom have taken an interest in Mr. Makhtal's case.
"It's really tough," said Mr. Maktal. "I wish the government of Canada would do more for him, instead of just sweet talk."
Said Maktal, who lives in Hamilton, Ont., has been fighting for justice for Mr. Makhtal almost since he was arrested by Kenyan authorities in December of 2006, as he attempted to cross the border from Somalia to escape fighting between the a Somali militia and the Ethiopian army.
Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman, who has been retained by Mr. Makhtal's family to represent his case in Canada, also plans to take action to spur the federal government, pushing ahead with a lawsuit he filed in April under the Official Development Accountability Assistance Act, seeking to limit some of the millions of dollars in development aid provided annually from Canada to Ethiopia.
"It is our hope and expectation that the Canadian government will respond forcefully to what happened today," said Mr. Waldman, "and make it clear that unless Bashir is released quickly that it will have serious repercussions for the ongoing aid program to Ethiopia and to bilateral relations."
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said in a statement that the government is "extremely disappointed by the maximum jail sentence to which Bashir Makhtal has been sentenced by the court in Ethiopia.
"The Government of Canada will continue to explore all options for supporting Bashir Makhtal."
Mr. Cannon added: "Bashir Makhtal's lawyer has stated that his client will exercise his right under Ethiopian law to appeal the conviction and the sentence. The Government of Canada will continue to explore all options for supporting Bashir Makhtal." He said his officials will continue to watch the case closely and "seek regular consular access" to Mr. Makhtal.
Mr. Makhtal's lawyer in Ethiopia, Gebreamlak Gebregiorgis Tekle, confirmed that he planned to launch an appeal with Ethiopia's Federal Supreme Court within two weeks.
But Mr. Waldman was not hopeful that the process would yield results.
"Although it's true there is an appeal process," he said, "we have no expectation that the appeal decision will be any different than the trial decision, because as we know the judiciary is not independent in Ethiopia.
"Whatever happens to Bashir Makhtal will be a political decision and not a legal decision."
Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said: "I think the bottom line is that after 2 ½ years of unfair proceedings and a wide array of human rights violations, it's impossible to have any confidence that this is a fair and sound outcome."
Mr. Makhtal, a 40-year-old former Toronto resident and a Canadian citizen since 1994, was convicted on three terrorism related charges, following a trial that has been widely criticized by human rights groups and legal experts.
Though the prosecution had been seeking a death penalty, his lawyer in Ethiopia said they had hoped for a lighter prison term.
"He's very unhappy," said Mr. Tekle. "When a person hears he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison, definitely he would be unhappy."
For the time being, Mr. Makhtal will remain in the same prison, where he is permitted regular visits from family.
Friends and family say Mr. Makhtal has been detained in Ethiopia because his grandfather was one of the founding members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement that has been locked into a bitter, and at times violent conflict with the Ethiopian government.
According to a document sent to Mr. Makhtal's family by Foreign Affairs officials, Mr. Makhtal testified that after learning in the late 1990s that his name had been added to the executive committee of the ONLF with neither his consent nor knowledge, he later lobbied to have his name removed, and received a letter of apology from the group dated June of 2006.
"In fact," Mr. Makhtal said, "I am a victim of the ONLF."
According to friends, family and Mr. Makhtal's own court testimony, he was in Mogadishu for business, importing used clothing from Dubai for resale in East Africa.
Mr. Makhtal was never charged in Kenya. Instead, three weeks after his arrest, he was forcibly deported along with scores of other prisoners to Mogadishu and ultimately Ethiopia, where he was held for nearly two years incommunicado, in solitary confinement and without charge. For most of that time he was denied consular access.