Feds pressure Ethiopia to release jailed Canadian

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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OTTAWA - Federal Transport Minister John Baird says he's made progress to secure the release of a Canadian who's spent three years languishing in Ethiopian prisons.
Baird paid a whirlwind visit to Addis Ababa where he personally lobbied Ethiopia's foreign minister to free Bashir Makhtal, whom Canada believes has been wrongly convicted on terrorism-related charges.
Baird says he warned that Makhtal's case has become an irritant in Canada's otherwise good relations with the east African country.
He formally asked that Ethiopia deport Makhtal back to Canada, with a promise that the 41-year-old will never return to the region.
Baird says the Ethiopian minister countered with a specific proposal to allow Makhtal to serve out his life sentence in Canada.
Baird called the proposal "somewhat problematic" given that Canada has no prisoner transfer agreement with Ethiopia and, in any event, does not believe Makhtal is guilty.
"I think both sides want to work it through but obviously the key difference of opinion is on his guilt or innocence," Baird said in a telephone interview Thursday from Tel Aviv.
Makhtal's family say he's been targeted because his grandfather was a founder of a separatist group that Ethiopia considers a terrorist organization.
Baird was cautiously optimistic that his trip may yet help secure Makhtal's release.
"I think the fact that I travelled 24 hours to spend the day there and then 24 hours back ... demonstrated the commitment and the priority that we're putting on the case at the highest levels," Baird said.
"We've made some progress. Obviously, our single goal is to get him back to Canada and I won't be satisfied until we get that."
Makhtal, an ethnic Somali born in Ethiopia, came to Canada as a refugee in 1991 and became a Canadian citizen three years later.
He was in Somalia in December 2006 on business when Ethiopian troops invaded the country. He was arrested on terrorism-related charges as he tried to flee across the border to Kenya.
He languished in a military prison for more than year, without access to a lawyer or Canadian consular help.
Last August, Makhtal was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial that Amnesty International denounced as a political exercise. His bid to appeal was rejected last December by the Ethiopian Supreme Court.
Baird paid a visit to the civilian prison where Makhtal is now being held and was pleased to find him in good health in relatively comfortable conditions.
"Bashir was healthy and, under the circumstances, was in relatively good spirits. ... He unreservedly indicated that he was being treated well."

Organizations: Amnesty International, Ethiopian Supreme Court

Geographic location: Ethiopia, Canada, OTTAWA Addis Ababa Tel Aviv Somalia Kenya

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