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Tory ministers weigh in to support Canadian jailed in Ethiopia
Tory ministers weigh in to support Canadian jailed in Ethiopia
Published Sunday February 22nd, 2009

OTTAWA - Two high - profile Conservative cabinet ministers are voicing support for Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian imprisoned for over two years in Ethiopia.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Transport Minister John Baird both declared Sunday that they've seen no credible proof Makhtal is a criminal or a security risk.

"There's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that he's committed any crime," Baird told reporters as he prepared to address a meeting of about 200 Somali-Canadians.

"What we have here is a Canadian citizen whose civil liberties have been egregiously violated."

Kenney later told the meeting in an Ottawa banquet hall that Canada can't simply barge into a foreign country and "remove" a person facing a judicial process there.

But he said the government has successfully pressed Ethiopian authorities to allow visits by Canadian consular officials, to transfer Makhtal's case from a military tribunal to a civilian court, and to grant him access to legal counsel.

"We want to ensure that, one way or another, this matter is brought to a quick resolution," Kenney said. "And of course we, as Canadians, hope that resolution will see him come home to Canada as soon as possible."

The comments - by far the strongest public statements by the Tory government since the case came to light - were welcomed by Lorne Waldman, the Toronto lawyer hired by Makhtal's family to represent his interests.

"I think we've learned in the past that quiet diplomacy doesn't always work, so we're thrilled to have the ministers here," said Waldman.

"I think we're at a critical juncture (in the case.) We hope the Canadian government will take this up at the highest levels."

Ethiopia has laid charges accusing Makhtal of involvement in the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group whose founders included his grandfather.

But friends and family say he has never been active in the group. And Canada, unlike Ethiopia, doesn't classify the ONLF as a terrorist organization.

Makhtal, though born in Ethiopia, grew up in neighbouring Somalia and came to Canada in 1991. He studied computer programming, became a Canadian citizen and held jobs at two banks over the next 10 years, before deciding to return to East Africa to start a used-clothing business.

He was in Somalia, travelling on a Canadian passport, when Ethiopian troops invaded in 2006 and was detained by Kenyan police in December of that year as he tried to cross the border into their country.

He was held at first in Nairobi, then transferred to Somalia and eventually to Ethiopia, apparently as part of a multi-country roundup of suspects as part of the U.S.-led war on terror.

Waldman said it appeared Makhtal was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Neither the Canadian Security Intelligence Service nor the RCMP had expressed interest in him during his years in Canada, said the lawyer. And neither the FBI nor the CIA have interrogated him in Ethiopia, although U.S. anti-terrorism officials have questioned others imprisoned there.

The case has been compared by some to that of Maher Arar, the Ottawa engineer who was detained by U.S. officials in New York and spirited to Syria to face torture.

A public inquiry later cleared his name and found the Americans had acted on the basis of erroneous allegations by the RCMP that Arar had ties to al-Qaida.

Baird went out of this way to rebut any comparison with the current case, saying the Canadian government was "in no way" involved in the arrest or detention of Makhtal.

Kenney, for his part, said Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has written to Ethiopian authorities on behalf of Makhtal. Former minister Peter MacKay, who has since moved to the defence portfolio, also intervened behind the scenes.

In addition, Tory MP Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, visited Ethiopia last year and took up the case directly with the prime minister.

The slow pace of developments since then has been frustrating, Kenney acknowledged, but the government remains optimistic that "we're making progress."

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