Canada granted access to Canadian detained for year and a half in Ethiopia

Jim Bronskill

OTTAWA - After 18 months of fruitless effort, Canadian officials in Ethiopia have succeeded in visiting a former Toronto man held under mysterious circumstances in an Addis Ababa jail.

The Foreign Affairs Department said Monday that diplomats in the East African country saw imprisoned Canadian Bashir Makhtal last Friday. "Canadian officials were able to verify Mr. Makhtal's well-being during our recent consular visit," Foreign Affairs spokesman Shaun Tinkler said in an email response to questions from The Canadian Press.

"We will continue to press Ethiopian authorities to ensure that we are provided with regular consular access."

Lorne Waldman, Makhtal's lawyer, said Foreign Affairs told him of the visit but provided him no details. "We haven't been given a report about what transpired during the meeting."

Waldman has long been worried by unofficial reports from Ethiopia that Makhtal has already appeared before a military court where he will face trial.

"The military courts are notorious for their lack of due process," Waldman said Monday.

Tinkler said the department "has not been advised of any criminal charges filed against Mr. Makhtal by Ethiopian authorities."

Belay Kidane, first counsellor at the Ethiopian Embassy in Ottawa, had no comment on the case Monday, calling it an "issue of national security for us."

Makhtal, a Canadian citizen born in Ethiopia, came to Canada as a refugee and later moved to Kenya, where he opened a used-clothing business.

He was on business in Somalia during an invasion by Ethiopian troops in late 2006. Makhtal fled back to Kenya, but was detained along with several others at the Kenya-Somalia border.

There have been suggestions he is of interest to the Ethiopian government due to his grandfather's involvement in a separatist group in the country's Ogaden region.

New York-based organization Human Rights Watch says Makhtal was among at least 34 people deported to Somalia from Kenya on Jan. 20, 2007, aboard an African Express Airways flight to Mogadishu.

Makhtal was later shipped to Ethiopia, and Canadian officials have tried repeatedly to see him - efforts that did not pay off until last Friday.

Human Rights Watch maintains that beginning in late December 2006, Kenyan security forces arrested at least 150 people of some 18 different nationalities at border crossing points with Somalia. These individuals were then detained in and around Nairobi for periods that violated Kenyan law, the group says.

While held in Nairobi, intelligence officials, including American authorities, interrogated several foreign nationals, Human Rights Watch said. Subsequent deportations on a series of special flights amounted to a joint removal of individuals of "interest to the Somali, Ethiopian or U.S. governments."

But for more than a year there have been more questions than answers about Makhtal's case.

"There's never been any official acknowledgment that he's been charged," Waldman said.

"Bashir's family has tried repeatedly to get a lawyer to see him, and every effort has been rebuffed."

Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, expressed Canadian concern over the case during a March visit to Ethiopia.

But access to Makhtal continued to be denied.

Waldman is heartened by the fact Canadian officials have now visited Makhtal in prison, but he criticized Ottawa for being too timid.

"I'm very grateful that as a result of all the hard work of the consular officials, they've been able to achieve access for Bashir, but I think it would have happened sooner and we would be far further down the road if there had been a more aggressive intervention."

Waldman has long argued that Canada should use its generous aid to Ethiopia as a means of ensuring co-operation in Makhtal's case.

Source: CP, July 23, 2008

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