The family of Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian citizen, continue to face persecution in Ethiopia. “This isn’t just something personal with respect to Bashir Makhtal, although he clearly is one of the figures at the center of this drama,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, which has monitored Mr. Makhtal’s case since his arrest. “It’s family-based persecution, and I think that also underscores the nature and the severity of the repression the Ogadeni population is experiencing in Ethiopia.”
By David Macdougall | Special Report by The Globe and Mail
KENYA — During the first month of her imprisonment in Ethiopia, Rukiya Ahmed Makhtal was blindfolded and beaten. “You are Makhtal’s family,” she recalled her persecutor saying. “If you are Makhtal’s family, that means you are one of the problems.”
Ms. Makhtal, 53, is the older sister of Ethiopian-born Bashir Ahmed Makhtal, the Canadian citizen and former Toronto information technologist who has spent the past three years in Ethiopian prisons. Convicted of terrorism-related charges, he was sentenced in August to life in prison, but is scheduled to appear before an appeal court today. His family, who maintain his innocence, say they have been persecuted because of the actions of his grandfather.
After spending 14 months in various Ethiopian prisons where she says she was bound, blindfolded and badly beaten, thrown in isolation, raped and told she would be executed, Ms. Makhtal was at last transferred to a crowded low-security prison where family scrounged for 1,000 birr (roughly $80) and paid the guards to look the other way while she walked through the prison gates and, like so many of her kin, away from Ethiopia for good.
For two days, she trudged across the Ethiopian desert, struggling from poor health and the wounds on her body, trying to blend in with a train of nomads and fearful she might be spotted before reaching the border.
During the past year, others in Bashir Makhtal’s family have trickled into Hagadera, a notoriously squalid and overcrowded refugee camp at Dadaab in Kenya’s North Eastern Province.
Ms. Makhtal, who is asking for resettlement in Canada as a refugee and whose case is being followed by Amnesty International, is now among 16 people sleeping in the sand under scant shelter, all of whom say they are related to Bashir Makhtal and the victims of persecution in Ethiopia.
Bashir Makhtal and his sister, Rukiya, are the grandchildren of a founding member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist movement in the ethnic Somali region of eastern Ethiopia, though both deny having been involved in the group.
“He was my grandfather,” Ms. Makhtal says. “We didn’t even know him.”
After an April, 2007, ONLF attack on a Chinese oil field at Abole in eastern Ethiopia that left 70 Chinese and Ethiopian workers dead, Ethiopia drastically stepped up a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the region.
A 2008 Human Rights Watch report accuses Ethiopian soldiers of burning down entire villages, mass detentions and even demonstration killings, “with Ethiopian soldiers singling out relatives of suspected ONLF members,” and of conducting widespread “military attacks on civilians and villages that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Abdi Mohamed Ahmed, 29, who says Ms. Makhtal is his aunt and who denies ever being involved with the ONLF, remembers the night in late 2007 the Ethiopian National Defence Forces came for his family, circling his house before dragging out his entire family, beating them and hauling them off to different jails.
“They used to tie our eyes, torturing and beating. They used to tie our hands and legs together and they hang us up from the ceiling. And everybody was alone.”
This was when Bashir Makhtal’s sister, his older brother Hassan Ahmed, and several of their children were also arrested.
Last Thursday, Hassan Ahmed Makhtal, who had been imprisoned for 22 months and was serving a life sentence, died in the Ethiopian capital after being released early to receive medical attention. A press release issued by the Ogaden Human Rights Commission claims he “died from wounds sustained during his detention,” though the cause of his death could not be independently verified.
According to several family members, two of Hassan Makhtal’s children – a 27-year-old son and a 25-year-old daughter – were beaten to death in military prisons less than a month after their arrest in 2008.
“They are not targeting ONLF. Our army is very strong now,” said Abdirahman Mahdi, a central committee member of the separatist group, who spoke during a recent interview in Toronto. “What they do is they target the weak spot, the civilians, the women and children.”
“This isn’t just something personal with respect to Bashir Makhtal, although he clearly is one of the figures at the centre of this drama,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, which has monitored Mr. Makhtal’s case since his arrest. “It’s family-based persecution, and I think that also underscores the nature and the severity of the repression the Ogadeni population is experiencing in Ethiopia.”
Mr. Makhtal was arrested by Kenyan authorities in December, 2006, as he attempted to flee the suddenly rising violence in neighbouring Somalia, where friends and family say he had travelled for business.
He was among 90 prisoners, including American, British and Kenyan nationals, who were forcibly deported, in violation of both Kenyan and international law, first to Mogadishu and then to Ethiopia. While every other Western country managed to secure the release of its citizens, Mr. Makhtal, the only Canadian arrested, alone remains in Ethiopian custody.
Said Makhtal, Mr. Makhtal’s cousin in Hamilton, Ont., says he’s optimistic about tomorrow’s outcome, but added: “I don’t know how much more I can count on the Ethiopian court system.”
In the meantime, many of Mr. Makhtal’s family are left to wait in the refugee camp while Amnesty International Canada puts forward their case to the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi.
“The life of Hagadera is too difficult,” Mr. Ahmed said. “There is no life, there is no health. There is not even enough water, the air of that place is not even good.”
“And still this moment we live under fear because there may be Ethiopian security,” he added, pointing out that Kenya already delivered his uncle, Mr. Makhtal, to Ethiopian authorities.
“Obviously, Canada continues to face difficulties in ensuring the safety of Mr. Makhtal himself,” Mr. Neve said. “At least we do have the opportunity to try and ensure safety for these other family members.”