Jailed Canadian in Ethiopia gets day in court at last
Human-rights groups doubtful former Torontonian, jailed for more than two years without charges, will receive fair trail
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 19, 2009
NAIROBI -- A Canadian who's been imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than two years without charges or access to a lawyer is scheduled today to finally hear the evidence against him.
The prosecution has promised to produce six witnesses, the first evidence to be presented since Bashir Makhtal was detained in early 2007, but "there's just no way that Bashir could possibly get a fair trial in Ethiopia," says Lorne Waldman, his Canadian lawyer, who still acknowledges it is a step in the right direction.
"You have to look at this in perspective," said Mr. Waldman, a Toronto-based human-rights lawyer hired by Mr. Makhtal's family to represent his case in Canada. "There is, in fact, some progress from the point of view of other people who languish in Ethiopia for years and may never be brought to trial."
Mr. Makhtal has been accused of involvement in the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group that Ethiopia considered a terrorist organization. His grandfather was one of the founding members of the ONLF, though there has never been any evidence made public that links Mr. Makhtal to the group. If convicted, he could face a sentence ranging from 10 years imprisonment to death.
During his detention, Mr. Makhtal was held in isolation and incommunicado. He was denied consular access. One former detainee quoted in a 2008 Human Rights Watch report recalls seeing Mr. Makhtal: "He was limping. He had a deep cut in one of his legs. He looked weak. He looked so famished."
It took more than a year for Ethiopia to even admit it was holding him, but after pressure from Canadian Transport Minister John Baird and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, the case was transferred from military to civilian court, and lawyers and consular staff were allowed access.
"We have seen some positive steps from the Ethiopian authorities recently," Mr. Baird said.
Mr. Makhtal, now in his 40s, is a former Toronto resident, born in Ethiopia. He was raised in Somalia and moved to Canada in 1991, where he worked as a computer programmer. He became a Canadian citizen in 1994. In 2001 he moved to Dubai to start a business.
Mr. Makhtal was on what family say was a business trip to Mogadishu when the Ethiopian army invaded in December, 2006, ousting the ruling Islamic government. He was later arrested at a Kenyan-Somali border crossing as he attempted to leave the country carrying a Canadian passport.
In Nairobi, Mr. Makhtal was questioned but never charged. Instead, on Jan. 20, two days before a scheduled court hearing, he was sent via Mogadishu to Ethiopia, where along with 85 others, including several other Westerners, he disappeared.
"As soon as we learned where he was going, we were gravely concerned," recalls Aziza Osman, Mr. Makhtal's Kenyan wife.
Her life ground to a halt. She had married Mr. Makhtal just months before his arrest and planned to move into a new home and start a family after his return from Somalia.
Mr. Makhtal's lawyer in Ethiopia, Gerebe Amiak Tekle, says that his client is optimistic about the court appearance. "He believes he will be home soon after the trial has ended."
But family members, human- rights groups and Mr. Makhtal himself have expressed concerns about the possibility of him receiving a fair trial in Ethiopia.
"I will be pleasantly surprised if this trial is anything but a sham," said Leslie Lefkow, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
For some, the question now is why hasn't Canada done more to free Mr. Makhtal. Of the handful of a Westerners that Kenya originally sent to Ethiopia, Mr. Makhtal is the only one still in detention.
"It's actually time for the Ethiopian government to be hearing very clearly from the Prime Minister himself," said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
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