Saturday, April 4, 2009

Lawyer for jailed Canadian seeks end to aid for Ethiopia

Jim Brown
Thursday, April 02, 2009

Bashir Makhtal Lawyer Lorne Waldman
Photo: HOL 
OTTAWA  (CP) - The lawyer for a Canadian jailed in Ethiopia has gone to court trying to block foreign aid payments to the East African country in protest over his client's treatment.

Lorne Waldman filed papers in Federal Court on Thursday on behalf of Bashir Makhtal, who has been held in prison in Addis Ababa for two years.

Ethiopian authorities claim he is a member of an outlawed separatist group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a charge he denies.

Two federal cabinet members, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Transport Minister John Baird, have expressed public support for Makhtal and vowed to work for his release and return to Canada.

Baird, who took an interest in the affair at the urging of constituents in his Ottawa riding, has said he's ready to travel to Ethiopia to met with officials there.

"I hope to go in the coming weeks," he repeated Thursday.

"My role in this case has been to push due process and fairness. That is the message I want to take to the Ethiopian government".

He voiced reservations, however, about the legal action taken by Waldman, saying he's "not optimistic" that putting pressure on Ethiopia through the Canadian courts will further Makhtal's interests.

The action filed by Waldman notes that Canada currently provides $89 million a year in aid to Ethiopia, some of which is earmarked to fund improvements to the country's legal system.

The court documents contend that, given the treatment of Makhtal, the payments violate provisions in Canadian law that call for foreign aid to be "consistent with Canadian values" and with international human rights standards.

Waldman said in an interview he's not interested in cutting off aid for clean water projects, agricultural development or other worthy goals. But he does want an end to aid for a legal system he characterizes as corrupt, lacking in transparency and subject to political interference.

"The purpose of this lawsuit is to prevent Canada from continuing to send aid to what we believe is an unfair legal system which is subjecting a Canadian citizen to an unfair process," said Waldman.

The suit was filed as Makhtal appeared in court in Addis Ababa to hear a parade of prosecution witnesses offer evidence against him.

Cousin Said Maktal - a Hamilton, Ont. resident who spells the family name slightly differently - said he was told by relatives who attended the hearing that the witnesses offered mainly hearsay testimony rather than first-hand accounts of Bashir's activities.

A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said staff of the Canadian embassy also attended the proceedings but had yet to file a report to Ottawa. No judgment has been delivered and it's unclear when the next hearing will be.

Although Waldman maintained his suit is based on sound legal principles, he frankly acknowledged it's also intended to put political pressure on the Ethiopian government.

"The whole process in this case is political, it's obvious, so the only solution is political," said Waldman. "There's no way Bashir Makhtal will ever get a fair trial in Ethiopia."

He drew a parallel with the case of Maher Arar, whom he also represented and who was released by Syrian authorities only after then-prime minister Jean Chretien intervened on his behalf.

A public inquiry later found Arar had been wrongly accused of terrorist links by the RCMP, but there have been no similar allegations against Makhtal by Canadian authorities and no suggestion that Ottawa played any role in his detention.

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 linked to the U.S.-led war on terror.

Source: CP, April 02, 2009

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