Ottawa continues to advocate on behalf of Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian citizen serving a life sentence in Ethiopia on terrorism charges, said Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs.
“I can tell you ever since I’ve been appointed to this position I’ve been working quite a bit on this file,” he told the Star. “We’re doing everything we can to see Bashir back home.”
Makhtal, who has always maintained his innocence, was arrested in January 2006 on the border of Somalia and Kenya, after fleeing Mogadishu and the fall of the Somali Islamic Courts Union government. He was convicted in 2009 in a trial that human rights advocates insist was unfair.
He was questioned in Nairobi and eventually put on a top-secret flight to Ethiopia, where he was eventually charged with multiple counts of terrorism, under accusations he had been a ringleader with the Ogaden National Liberation front, an ethnic Somali group formed by his grandfather to gain independence for the oil-rich region.
While Alghabra won’t confirm or deny that a prisoner exchange is in the works for Makhtal, the Star has confirmed with his cousin Said Maktal that a prison transfer had been approved by Ottawa last fall. The case is currently in the hands of the Ethiopian government.
Bashir Makhtal was offered a prison transfer in 2013, but he rejected the option at the time because he said he was innocent. But because of his deteriorating health, he later agreed to the transfer, which would see him serve five more years in a Canadian prison, his cousin said.
Maktal said he has met with Alghabra, who has assured him they are working to get his cousin back to Canada. “It has been a decade of injustice,” he said. It would have been better if they got him released, but if they can speed up the transfer it would be a least good for the family to see their lost brother.”
“We understand the Canadian government is trying to do everything it can to see that the transfer is effected as soon as possible,” said Lorne Waldman, a Toronto immigration and human rights lawyer who represents the imprisoned Canadian.
“There are ongoing negotiations with Ethiopa,” Waldman said. “As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a final decision by Ethiopia to approve it. I know the Canadian government is trying to get the transfer achieved. So far they haven’t got the consent of the Ethiopians to proceed, but they’re working hard. We’re doing everything we can do with the Canadian government to allow the transfer to take place as soon as possible so Bashir can be near his family.”
The fact Makhtal, who is in his mid-40s, is still languishing in prison in Ethiopia still greatly concerns Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
“We understand the Canadian government is taking it seriously … and we urge that those efforts continue to be a priority … and that the drive to get Bashir back to Canada intensifies.”
Makhtal’s wife, Asiso Abdi, came to Canada as a government-assisted refugee several years ago.
The Star contacted the Ethiopian Embassy for an update on the prisoner exchange, but got no response.