Lawsuit challenges aid to Ethiopia
Bashir Makhtal is seen in this undated handout photo.
Imprisoned Canadian's lawyer accuses Ottawa of giving relief to state that doesn't respect rights
Apr 03, 2009 04:30 AM Michelle Shephard National Security Reporter
There have been Supreme Court cases, costly federal inquiries, rallies and media pressure that has forced the government into action concerning Canadian citizens detained abroad.
But now comes an inventive court challenge that lawyers for Bashir Makhtal hope will pack a financial punch and lead to the Canadian's release from Ethiopia.
A lawsuit against the Canadian government filed yesterday in federal court argues that Canada is breaking the law by providing financial aid to Ethiopia.
"Official government development aid shall only be provided to countries if the aid `is consistent with international human rights standards,'" the claim alleges, quoting from a new law that came into effect in June.
The Official Development Assistance Accountability Act was passed in order to ensure that development assistance is provided "in a manner that is consistent with Canadian values (and) Canadian foreign policy."
Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman argues in his suit that Makhtal, who is being held in an Addis Ababa prison, has been denied access to lawyers or consular assistance for two years, and coupled with international criticism about Ethiopia's courts, continued aid would violate Canadian law.
The suit focuses on the portion of Canada's $89 million in foreign aid targeted for improving Ethiopia's legal system.
"We don't have any issue of the government sending aid to people who are starving or building wells or all the other things they may be doing in Ethiopia," Waldman said.
"But giving aid to a government that doesn't respect due process to finance their legal system is in my view inconsistent with our obligations."
Makhtal, an Ethiopian-born Canadian citizen who lived in Toronto for close to a decade before moving to Kenya where he worked and lived with his wife, was arrested in December 2006 at the border of Somalia. He was initially held in Nairobi but then taken secretly to Somalia and driven to Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government alleges Makhtal is a member of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is fighting for the Somali-speaking population of Ethiopia's disputed, oil-rich Ogaden region.
He has denied the charge.
While the government had not spoken out publicly against Makhtal's case when he was initially detained, Foreign Affairs Parliamentary Secretary Deepak Obhrai went to Addis Ababa twice last year to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Federal Transport Minister John Baird, whose Ottawa riding has a large Somali population, recently took a personal interest in the case and vowed to visit Ethiopia soon.
"I am very cautious about this step by the lawyers," Baird said yesterday in reaction to the lawsuit.
"I am just not optimistic that an attempt to pressure the Ethiopians in Canadian courts will benefit Bashir. His case is taking place in Ethiopia, and that needs to be where we focus our efforts."
Makhtal appeared in an Ethiopian court yesterday where six witnesses gave "mainly hearsay testimony," his cousin, Said Makhtal, said. He is to appear again April 20.