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Friday, June 11, 2010

Canada to push for release of Ethiopian prisoner

thiopia's leader at the G8 summit this month to release a Canadian it believes is unjustly imprisoned there, The Canadian Press has learned.

But Ottawa will not make the June 25 visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to the G8 summit in Ontario's cottage country contingent on the release of 41-year-old Bashir Makhtal.
"It's certainly an opportunity to make our case again, which we will continue to do," Transport Minister John Baird told The Canadian Press in an interview Thursday.
Amnesty International and Makhtal's relatives plan to demand on Friday in a press conference on Parliament Hill that Zenawi not be allowed to set foot on Canadian soil unless he brings Makhtal with him.
Amnesty International says Makhtal is a prisoner of conscience and the victim of an unfair trial.
Baird travelled to Ethiopia earlier this year to try to win Makhtal's release. He said he shares the frustration of Makhtal's family and supporters but thinks "constructive and productive" engagement with the Ethiopian government is the key to winning his freedom.
"It's not that I understand their frustration -- I share it," Baird explained.
"Obviously we want to do everything we can. I've worked very hard. I've put a lot of blood sweat and tears into efforts to seek Bashir's release. We'll continue to do that."
Baird could not say whether he or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as the host of the summit, would raise Makhtal's case with Zenawi, but he said that it would be raised.
The Ethiopian prime minister is one of several African leaders who have been invited as part of G8 outreach to the June 25 summit hosted by Canada in Ontario's Muskoka region.
Baird said Ethiopia has a legitimate role to play at the summit and should not be barred because of Makhtal's case.
"We have differences of opinions on issues with many countries. We're more likely to meet with success in resolving those issues when we work with them and meet with them," Baird said.
The minister said Ethiopia has "taken some constructive and positive moves in recent years" on child and maternal health, the signature G8 issue of the Harper government at the summit.
"Obviously we'd like to see Bashir be able to return to Canada as soon as possible," said Baird.
"Whatever I do I want to choose my words carefully. (It's) a delicate diplomatic issue. Anything I say, I want it to be constructive and positive."
An early draft of the final leaders' communique that was obtained recently by The Canadian Press speaks of the need to engage with African countries.
"Leaders reaffirmed their shared commitment to continued collaboration between G8 and African partners in support of African-led efforts to build a more stable, democratic and prosperous Africa, to advance economic and social development, and to promote the rule of law," the draft document says.
Baird planned to meet Friday in Ottawa with Makhtal's supporters after their press conference. He's taken a personal interest in the case because he was lobbied by constituents of Somali descent in his Ottawa riding.
Makhtal is an ethnic Somali who was born in Ethiopia. He came to Canada as a refugee before becoming a citizen in 1994. He was arrested at the Kenya-Somalia border in late 2006 and sent back to Ethiopia, where he was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to life in prison last year.
Makhtal has been accused of supporting the Ogadeni opposition group in Ethiopia, but Amnesty says no credible evidence has been put forward to support that claim.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon also met with Ethiopian officials in Addis Ababa in January to press Makhtal's case, about two weeks before Baird made his trip there.
Baird said Makhtal looked healthy when he visited him in prison in February. Since then, a Canadian diplomat visits him every month to check on his well-being.
"I hope the fact that we're keeping such close eye on the file is ensuring that he's been treated well."
Source: Canadian Press


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