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Toronto Protesters Demand Release of Canadian Held in Ethiopia
Protesters in Toronto voicing their support for Bashir Makhtal

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hundreds of Somali-Canadians and members of the general public recently took to the streets in Toronto in a public demonstration aimed at voicing support for Bashir Makhtal, the Canadian citizen illegally held in Ethiopia for the last five years.

The public protest is part of a series of pro-Makhtal demonstrations that have been taking place in Ottawa and Toronto calling for the Canadian Federal government to intervene on behalf of Bashir Makhtal. Many observers believe that Canada holds leverage over Ethiopia, which is one of the largest recipients of Canadian development aid in Africa.

A hard working and talented Canadian, Makhtal holds a Bachelor degree in Computer Science and has worked as a computer programmer for the Bank of Montreal and CIBC.

Canadians of all walks of life are appalled by Ottawa’s inaction on this critical matter and feel that the Federal government is abdicating its responsibility by failing to hold Ethiopia to account and for not taking drastic steps to bring Makhtal’s suffering to a close. Rights groups have persistently stated that Makhtal is being held against provisions of international law and that Canada should act swiftly to secure his unconditional release.

In December 2006, Makhtal was fleeing spiraling anarchy in Somalia following the Ethiopian invasion of the war-torn nation when he was arrested at the Somali-Kenyan border and detained in Kenya for three weeks before he was sent on an illegal rendition to Ethiopia. Prior to his illegal arrest, Makthal had been on an extended business trip in several countries including Dubai, Djibouti and Somalia.

In Ethiopia, Makhtal was held and imprisoned on drummed up charges where he still remains in detention. Weeks following its 2006 incursion into Somalia, many foreign nationals of Somali descent were dispatched on illegal renditions to Ethiopia by neighbouring Kenya and Somalia. With the exception of Canada, other Western nations secured the immediate releases of their citizens held in Ethiopia.

Ottawa, which holds sway when it comes to Addis, has dragged its feet on this urgent issue and Bashir Makhtal, an innocent Canadian, continues to endure a prolonged, illegal detention in Ethiopia. Canadian opposition parties, notably the NDP, have accused the Conservative government for its policy of not intervening on behalf of non-white Canadians held in foreign lands.

Said Maktal, Bashir's cousin, has been fighting for his release for the last five years.

In August 2009, a court in Ethiopia sentenced Makhtal to life in prison prompting his Canadian family and relatives to call for Prime Minster Stephen Harper to directly intervene in the case to help bring Bashir back to Canada.

Said Maktal, is the cousin of Bashir based in Hamilton, Ontario. Over the last five years, Said has been trying to bring his cousin back home. In an exclusive interview with the Digital Journal’s Farid Omar, Said described the appalling circumstances surrounding Bashir’s incarceration.

“It took me 18 months to send someone or get through a diplomatic letter to the Ethiopian government” said Maktal of the Ethiopian regime’s initial denial on Bashir’s whereabouts. “He was held in solitary confinement for two years with no communication whatsoever with anyone, except prison guards. Although he was later moved to regular prison, he is not allowed to write or talk on the phone except for minimal contact with people with authorization from the government.”

In 2009, Said sought the help of the then Transport Minister, Mr. John Baird, whose Ottawa – West Nepean riding is home to a significantly large Somali-Canadian population.

“Back then, I met Mr. John Baird who agreed to take on Bashir’s case. He was helpful from the beginning and believed in Bashir’s innocence. He told me he would do everything in his power to bring Bashir back to Canada”.

In 2010, Baird himself traveled to Addis Ababa. While in the Ethiopian capital, he met Bashir and later called Said to inform him of this development.

“He called me and said he met Bashir for 45 minutes. He also informed me that he spoke to people in government and that some documents needed to be translated before any further action is taken” Said Maktal.

But this turn of events did not yield any significant results, notes Said Maktal.

“Upon Mr. Baird’s return, nothing happened. All the momentum was lost. Things changed and all of sudden, the situation became far complicated. There was no response whatsoever from Addis. Even Mr. Baird looked frustrated” said Maktal.

A few weeks ago, Said Maktal and Bahir’s lawyer, Mr. Lorne Waldman, met Mr. John Baird, now the Foreign Affairs Minister and whose current docket is directly responsible for Bashir’s file.

“Mr. Baird informed me that last September, he met the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia who promised to look into Bashir’s case. Mr. Baird even followed up on the matter with two letters, but there was no response from the Ethiopian government” said Maktal.

Frustrated by government inaction, the Makthtal family has decided to file a lawsuit against the Canadian Federal government.

“On February 2nd, we filed a lawsuit to stop the Canadian government from using Canadian taxpayer dollars to provide aid money to Ethiopia. Canada has to give justification for its action and has 30 days to respond.

Canada should not pump money into Ethiopia unless that government changes its behaviour. It is clear that international law is being violated in Bashir’s case. One of the primary objectives of Canadian aid to the Horn of Africa nation is to enhance its justice system and Bashir’s file certainly falls under this category” said Maktal, adding that “Bashir’s lawsuit is far reaching as it has implications for both the Canadian government and the whole Ethiopian system.”

Maktal observes that many regions in Ethiopia and especially the Somali region of Ogaden are under the clutches of state repression. Gross violations of human rights and ongoing silent genocide in the Somali region have widely been documented by rights groups like Human Rights Watch etc.

Maktal hails from the Somali (Ogaden) region in Ethiopia and says that the situation in that repressive state is increasingly deteriorating.

“The people of Ogaden, Gambella and Oromo are all suffering. In my home region for example, international journalists and aid groups are not allowed in. Half of my family has fled from Ethiopia and forced into refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

Most recently, two Swedish journalists documenting abuses in the besieged region were unlawfully arrested and detained by the Ethiopian authorities. This type of political environment, best explains my cousin’s predicament” said Maktal.

Maktal believes that Bashir’s case now warrants the direct intervention of Prime Minster Stephen Harper. It is clear that Mr. Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minster, can only be swayed by Harper’s involvement.

“Mr. Zenawi’s attitude is such that he is the Ethiopian Prime Minister and therefore, any action on Bashir’s matter should come directly from Prime Minister Harper, and not cabinet ministers or other Canadian officials of lesser portfolios. Mr. Zenawi is asking himself; why isn’t the Canadian Prime Minster speaking to me?” notes Maktal.

Maktal is seriously concerned by Mr. Harper’s indifference to this urgent matter.
“Sadly enough, the PM doesn’t want to get involved. Interestingly, he takes a selective approach on whom to help or whom not to help. This begs the question; isn’t my cousin not enough Canadian? Are we not Canadians? queried Maktal.

Maktal mentioned several cases that have baffled many Canadians. The Brenda Martin saga is one such case.

“Brenda Martin, a Canadian who was convicted and imprisoned in Mexico on fraud charges, was released following intense pressure from Canada. Our government even sent a private jet to bring her back home and within two weeks, she was released from Canadian jail and set free.”

Maktal also points to the fact that in 2007, another Canadian woman, Deborah Kerr, from Brighton, Ontario, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in Pakistan for trafficking 6 kilograms of heroine.

“Within two years, the Canadian government brought her back home. I have nothing against the release of these women. What I am saying is that it is difficult to understand the Canadian system when we take Bashir’s situation into account.

Here we have an innocent Canadian held on false accusations and whose innocence has been proven beyond doubt yet the Canadian government has left him at the mercy of a draconian Ethiopian system for five long years!” said a visibly distraught Maktal.

From the beginning, the Ethiopian government lacked any credible evidence to convict Bashir. It filed false documents in court to convict Bashir claiming that he was captured in southern Somalia fighting for the Union of Islamic Courts that was ousted from power in the late 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

But it has widely been reported in world media that Bashir Makthal was actually arrested by the Kenyan security forces at the Kenya-Somalia border while fleeing the conflict there and then handed over to Ethiopia. Even Kenyan government records confirm this correct version of the story.

According to Maktal, Canada had the best opportunity ever to settle Maktal’s case during the G20 Summit in Toronto.

“Canada invited the Ethiopian Prime Minster to Toronto during the G20 Summit but no one from Canadian government had even raised the case to PM Meles Zenawi while he was here for 3 days. Canada should have seized that golden opportunity right then to bring Bashir’s case to a close. Why is everyone in the Canadian government closing their eyes? We often talk about Sudan and Zimbabwe, why not Ethiopia? asked Maktal

Maktal reiterated that only PM Harper can end Bashir’s nightmare pointing out that in the Maher Arar’s case, “it was the direct intervention by high - powered officials from Prime Minister Chrétien’s office that eventually secured Arar’s freedom. The PMO should now do the same with Bashir’s case. This case will not be solved by cabinet ministers or low ranking envoys. This is a case for the Prime Minister’s Office” stated Maktal.

Maktal wants Canadians to know that Bashir’s case is taking it toll on his family.
“After five long years, we are still sitting here frustrated. We have done everything in our power and yet the Canadian government is not reining in, on Ethiopia. Our family is suffering knowing that Bashir's plight is getting worse each passing day. We have now been compelled to spend thousands of dollars to file a lawsuit against the government”

Despite the ongoing dead-end in the case stemming from government inaction, Maktal has vowed to continue with the struggle to help free his cousin. He is calling upon the Canadian public to rally behind Bashir’s cause and exert more pressure on the Canadian government to take urgent action at the highest level.



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