Conservatives pressure Woyanne to free jailed Canadian – By Louisa Taylor, The Ottawa Citizen

March 18th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

Baird, Kenney vow to exhaust options to end two-year ordeal

Two senior cabinet ministers on Sunday made the Harper government’s most forceful statement yet in defence of Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian who has been held illegally in an Ethiopian jail for two years. (more…)

Baird, Kenney vow to exhaust options to end two-year ordeal

Two senior cabinet ministers on Sunday made the Harper government’s most forceful statement yet in defence of Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian who has been held illegally in an Ethiopian jail for two years.

Federal Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities John Baird and Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, said Makhtal’s plight is a “top priority” for their government.

“We have made it clear to the Ethiopian government that we are watching, and we did not ask that he be treated fairly, we demanded that he be treated fairly,” Baird said.

Speaking to an afternoon gathering of more than 100 members of Ottawa’s Somali community in his Ottawa West-Nepean riding, Baird said he and Kenny will be “doing everything possible” to bring Makhtal home — including possibly travelling to Ethiopia before his next court appearance, set for mid-March.

“We’ve got to try everything,” Baird said. “We’ve got a new deadline of March 19 and we’re going to stay very, very focused.”

A member of the audience asked if that meant going to Ethiopia to make the case for Makhtal’s release.

“We did talk to the family and his lawyer before this meeting, and I told them I am prepared to do whatever I can,” Baird said.

Lorne Waldman, Makhtal’s lawyer, said later that Baird told the family “he was seriously considering the possibility of going to Ethiopia himself.”

Makhtal, a Toronto computer programmer who started a trading business in East Africa in 2001, was arrested crossing the border into Kenya in December 2006. A month later, he and dozens of other foreigners were forced onto a secret rendition flight to Ethiopia. Makhtal was placed in solitary confinement for two years, with no specific charges against him, although the Ethiopian government has accused him of being an Islamic terrorist and a member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Makhtal’s grandfather was one of the founders of the ONLF, which is involved in an armed struggle against the Ethiopian government. His family believes Makhtal is being targeted because of his family background. Ethiopia has released all other foreigners from the rendition flights, except for Makhtal and one Kenyan.

“I have seen no evidence that he has done anything wrong,” Baird told the gathering, which was organized by the Ottawa-based Free Bashir Working Group and the Canadian Somali Congress. Baird noted that the charges against Makhtal were finally read in an open court last month, although details are scarce as they were read out in Amharic and have yet to be translated.

“After two years, they had to put up or shut up. We’re now hearing of the charges against him and no surprise, it seems to be guilt by association.”

Baird insisted his government has been very active throughout Makhtal’s time in detention: at least two ministers of Foreign Affairs have sent letters to their Ethiopian counterparts, and Parliamentary Secretary Deepak Obhrai travelled to Addis Ababa twice last year for meetings with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

But Waldman and the Makhtal family say those moves came long after Makhtal was first detained. They argue that he has little chance of receiving a fair trial in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian government will not feel pressure to release him until it comes from a higher level in the Canadian government.

“It’s important that senior cabinet ministers are now fully engaged in this,” says Waldman. “I think it’ll send a strong signal to the government of Ethiopia that this is a high-priority case for the Canadian government.”

Referring to how the government of the day handled the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian software engineer illegally deported to Syria, where he was tortured during his year-long detention there, Baird said it’s clear that “big mistakes” were made on the political side.

“We’re determined as cabinet ministers, as MPs and as Canadians that we’re not going to let those things happen again. That’s why we’re here.”

Baird said he and Kenney would be sitting down with Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon this week — possibly as early as today — to discuss the case.

“This matter needs to be brought to a quick resolution and we hope that resolution will see Bashir brought home to Canada,” Kenney said.

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