Canadian convicted in Ethiopian court

Canadian Bashir Makhtal is shown in this family photo. (/Canadian Press)

When Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia for 21/2 years, entered a courtroom in Addis Ababa Monday, his hopes of bringing to a conclusion a long and difficult ordeal and returning to Canada seemed to be dashed.

Neither Mr. Makhtal nor his lawyer were permitted to address the court, which convicted him on three terrorism-related charges linked to his alleged involvement in an Ethiopian separatist movement, bringing to an end a trial that has been criticized by human rights groups and legal experts since its inception in March.

"I have never seen him acting like this," said a family member in Ethiopia who spoke through a Somali translator and asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety. "He was very upset and very unhappy and very worried about the case," she said, after speaking with Mr. Makhtal in prison Monday, following the conviction.

Mr. Makhtal is to be sentenced on Aug. 3 and could face life imprisonment or death, although his lawyer in Ethiopia, Gebreamlak Tekele, said they plan to appeal the conviction if the sentence is more than time served.

"It is important not to speculate on the outcome," said federal Transport Minister John Baird, who took an interest in Mr. Makhtal's case after hearing from the Somali community in his riding, "but I remain personally committed to doing all I can for Bashir once he is sentenced next Monday."

A former Toronto resident now in his 40s, Mr. Makhtal was arrested by Kenyan authorities in December, 2006, as he attempted to cross the border from Somalia on a Canadian passport in an effort to escape fighting between Ethiopia and Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts, an Islamist militia.

He says he went to Mogadishu to receive a shipment of clothing from Dubai as a part of the business he operated in the East Africa region.

Mr. Makhtal was never charged in Kenya. Instead, after several weeks in custody, he was sent to Ethiopia where he essentially disappeared. It was a year before the Ethiopian government admitted it was holding him. And for nearly two years, he was held incommunicado in solitary confinement and denied consular access.

Mr. Makhtal is the grandson of one of the founding members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, though he claims he has never had any involvement with the movement. During his trial, Mr. Makhtal told the court, "in fact, I am the victim of the ONLF," according to a June 12 Department of Foreign Affairs report provided by Mr. Makhtal's family.

Despite repeatedly claiming he could not receive a fair trial in Ethiopia, Mr. Makhtal was optimistic before his court appearance, according to the family member in Ethiopia who also visited him on the weekend.

Mr. Baird's recent interest in the case together with diplomatic efforts in Ethiopia seem to have made some progress in bringing Mr. Makhtal's case before a civilian court, improving the conditions of his detention and allowing him access to consular staff.

And last month, to the surprise of both Mr. Makhtal and his family, he was allowed to present his case during a single court session in which he spoke for 90-minutes.

But news of Monday's court proceedings and conviction came as a blow to family members who have spent that past 21/2 years fighting to bring Mr. Makhtal to justice. "I've suffered. Everyone has suffered," said Said Maktal, Mr. Makhtal's Hamilton, Ont. cousin, who spells his last name differently.

Critics of the process - and Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman who was retained by Mr. Makhtal's family to represent his case in Canada - say that Canada hasn't done enough. In April, Mr. Waldman filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government under the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, seeking to limit the non-humanitarian aid that Canada provides annually to Ethiopia.

"We've got a Canadian citizen who was basically rendered illegally from Kenya to Ethiopia," said Mr. Waldman, "forcibly taken there, against his will, without due process, and is sitting in an Ethiopian jail for 21/2 years or longer, has now been sent to a kangaroo court."

"The question is whether our government should countenance that by allowing foreign aid to go to that type of regime that's mistreating a Canadian citizen in that fashion."

"News of the conviction on all three counts is very disappointing," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, "coming on the heels of 21/2 years of injustice and human rights violations."

"It is of vital importance that the Canadian government intervene forcefully over the coming week, at the very highest levels - including the Prime Minister - to make it clear to Ethiopian authorities that they should not in any way consider seeking the death penalty in this case. This is not a time for wait and see."