Statement read by Bashir Makthal National Press Conference, House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario
I am here today, a free man, after a nightmare of imprisonment in Ethiopia that stole from me, my wife and my family, more than 11 years of my life.
I am sharing my story with Canadians so that people are aware of the terrible human rights situation in Ethiopia, which Canada can and must do much more to address. The repression in Ethiopia has been so serious that even as a Canadian citizen my passport was no protection despite all I went through. I am making an urgent call for more to be done to secure the release of my nephew, who does not benefit from Canadian citizenship, but has been imprisoned for more than 11 years, locked up when he was only 16. I am also making a call for all governments that played a role in what happened to me – particularly Kenya and Ethiopia – to provide compensation and an apology. I ask Canada to assist me in pursuing that compensation. Finally, I believe there were mistakes and lost opportunities in how Canadian officials handled my case over these 11 years, and I urge that there be an independent review of those circumstances to ensure that lessons are learned and that other Canadians do not have to go through what happened to me.
My people are the Ogaden people, who are ethnically Somali, but part of Ethiopia. For well over one hundred years we have known nothing but brutal persecution, first during British colonial rule and then under four successive, cruel Ethiopian governments determined to crush our people.
My grandfather, Makhtal Dahir Ahmed was a heroic and celebrated leader, pushing for greater rights and protection for the Ogaden people and for Somalis more widely. He was the founding Chairman of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, established in the 1960’s, but had spoken up for our people for decades before that. He suffered 12 years of imprisonment and house arrest many decades ago.
My grandfather died in 2000, and was more than 100 years old at that time. Still today he is revered among the Ogaden and Somali communities.
I was born in Ethiopia, but moved to Somalia when I was seven years old to go to school. By the time I finished school in 1989, the human rights situation in Somalia was extremely dangerous and it was impossible to go back to Ethiopia. I travelled to Italy and then was sponsored to be reunited with my older brother, who was a Canadian citizen. I came to Canada in 1991 and became a citizen in 1994. My life was good here. I obtained a degree in computer science and had full time work as a computer technician.
However, I had major demands to provide financial support for many family members and needed to earn more money. I joined a close friend who was running a business importing and selling used clothing in the region. In 2001, I moved to the small country of Djibouti and over the next five years, I travelled between Djibouti, Dubai, Kenya and Canada, buying and selling clothing. I was able to provide much more support to my family.
I was in Somalia in late 2006 for business at a time that conditions there became very insecure and dangerous. There was tension and conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia at the time, and an invasion of Ethiopian forces seemed imminent. Somalia had closed its airspace.
I knew I could not stay in Somalia, so decided to flee to Kenya. As I could not fly I went by land, the first time I had travelled overland from Somalia to Kenya.
On New Year’s Eve, 2006, December 31st, I was arrested by Kenyan officials at the border with Somalia. They appeared to be arresting many individuals crossing from Somalia at that time, so I did not think it was too serious. I was held for several days and questioned about the situation in Somalia. I was cleared for release but before I was freed word came through that I was to be transferred to Nairobi.
While in detention in Nairobi, on January 6, 2007, two Ethiopian security agents came to question me alongside Kenyan officials. I was surprised and very worried; I knew this was a very bad sign. I had not been back in Ethiopia since I left at the age of seven and did not trust Ethiopian officials at all.
This is when I knew I had to notify Canadian officials in Kenya. They did come to see me three or four times, but all they did was write two letters of concern to the Kenyan foreign ministry. My case was not raised at more senior levels.
I hired a lawyer in Kenya, who brought a court application on my behalf. Kenyan government lawyers said they would file a response to that application on Monday, January 22nd. However, without any warning, on Saturday, January 20, 2007 I was taken from my cell to Nairobi airport, to be deported from Kenya. I was able to make a secret call to my wife, who I had only married 9 months earlier. But there was little she could do because it was a Saturday and offices were closed.
At the airport I was taken to a cargo area, away from the main terminal. Official Kenyan media was there and also many officials and employees. I refused to board the plane and I laid down on the runway. I was badly beaten, and still feel the pain today. I was then tied up, blindfolded, and forced onto the plane.
There were 34 of us being deported on that plane.
We went first to Mogadishu, Somalia where we remained for about 3 days and then on January 22, 16 of us we were taken to Addis Ababa on an Ethiopian military plane.
I was held in solitary confinement in horrific, inhumane conditions in a detention and interrogation centre called Makalawe. I was held in an underground cell. The dimensions were only two metres by two metres by two metres. The temperatures were below zero and the cell floor was often wet.
For the first year I was interrogated constantly. Their aim was to encourage me to become a collaborator with the Ethiopian government to spy on the Ogaden people. I constantly said I had never done anything wrong and that I would not turn against my people.
The conditions I was held in were devastating for my health. I was often awakened in the middle of the night for questioning. I could hear the screams and cries of other prisoners. They threatened to go after my family as well, which they did. In mid-2007, my brother and his son, my sister and her son, and many other family members were also arrested. When my brother Hassan was finally released in late 2009 his health was so poor, including infection from a broken rib that had punctured his lung, that he died only a few days after he was freed.
Between February – August 2008, I faced a military tribunal that was tasked with deciding whether my case would be heard by a military court.
In October 2008 it was decided that my case would be heard in a civilian court.
So I was transferred to Kaliti Prison in January 2009, where I remained for the next nine years. This is when I was finally able to see my family, for the first time in two years, and to hire a lawyer.
My trial took place between January and August 2009. The Ethiopian government accused me of everything they could possibly think of, including events that had happened while I was in solitary confinement. They had no documents or evidence to back up any of the charges that I was involved in armed activities and the only witnesses were government agents. I replied with 60 material witnesses and many documents. It appeared that two of the three judges were becoming sympathetic to my case, but one of them was replaced the day the decision was being rendered. Instead the President of the Ethiopian High Court read the judgement. I was found guilty. They said I should be executed but would instead receive a life sentence because I had no criminal record.
We filed an appeal that was heard in December 2009. But it was clear that the judge hadn’t even opened my file and after a 20 minute hearing, he upheld my conviction.
That was the end of any hope that the Ethiopian justice system would save me.
Now that I was in jail for life, Ethiopian officials continued to try to push me to cooperate with them. I continued to refuse. As punishment they put me back in solitary confinement for a full year, in 2013.
Finally, earlier this year, with a great deal of turmoil, unrest and protests in Ethiopia, I knew there was finally hope that I might be freed. Many political prisoners were being released, but months went by without any hopeful news for me. Until finally, on the morning of April 18th, a prison official whispered in my ear that I was to be freed that very day. I didn’t believe it until it happened. Forty-eight hours later I was on a flight back home to Canada and my freedom.
I have both great appreciation and deep disappointment regarding Canadian efforts on my behalf.
I know that if my situation had been taken more seriously by Canadian officials while I was detained in Kenya for those three weeks in January, all of this could likely have been avoided.
There were also many opportunities that were never used to increase the pressure on Ethiopian authorities to obtain my freedom, such as when Ethiopian Airways wanted landing rights in Toronto or when Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was invited to Canada by Prime Minister Harper as a guest at the time of the G20 Summit.
I welcome the fact that Parliamentary Secretary Deepak Obhrai and Transport Minister John Baird during Stephen Harper’s government, both travelled to Ethiopia to raise my case, and that Minister Baird visited me in prison. But I was so saddened that the Harper government’s efforts on my case faded over time and the Prime Minister Harper himself did not become involved. More recently I was so pleased to receive a visit from Parliamentary Secretary Omar Alghabra in prison last year, and my spirits were lifted when I learned that Prime Minister Trudeau had raised my case.
Over the past 5 years the main strategy being pursued was to bring me home through a prisoner transfer arrangement, but I was deeply concerned when I was told that would mean serving the same number of years in a Canadian prison, because that is what Ethiopia was demanding. It seemed that there was little backbone in Canadian efforts to stand up to Ethiopia.
As I walked free on April 18th, I left prison with a sad heart for my nephew, Mohamed Hassan Ahmed, arrested when he was 16 and imprisoned now for 11 years. I worry as well for the many political prisoners, journalists, human rights defenders, government officials who had criticized the government, and many others who have been convicted on contrived criminal charges. The world has not done enough to stand up for human rights in Ethiopia.
I am so deeply appreciative for everyone who worked for my freedom. That includes my family, including my wife Azizo and my dear cousin Said. It includes the Somali community here in Canada and abroad. It includes Amnesty International, which took up my case as soon as I was sent to Ethiopia. Also, other organizations like the National Council of Canadian Muslims. There have been so many Canadian government officials, particularly at the Embassy who helped me so much. Let me say particular thanks to Ambassador Philip Baker and Parliamentary Secretary Omar Alghabra. Other members of parliament, including Wayne Marston and Paul Dewar were supportive. And there were journalists, such as Debra Black and Louisa Taylor, who did what they could to keep my case before the public.
Finally, let me share my hopes and requests, which I am able to share with you today because of my freedom.
First, I ask Canada to press Ethiopia to free my nephew, Mohamed Hassan Ahmed, and all others who remain unjustly imprisoned in Ethiopia.
Second, the international community must take a much stronger stand with the Ogaden people, demanding that their rights be fully protected by the Ethiopian government, and for Ethiopia to protect and respect the rights of all peoples, regardless of their nationality.
Third, the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments are responsible for these terrible human rights violations I have experienced. I look to them for compensation and an apology. Canada’s support of those demands would be much appreciated.
Fourth, I believe there were mistakes and lost opportunities in Canada’s efforts to protect me. Those shortcomings added to the suffering I endured. I urge the government to carry out an independent review of the consular, diplomatic and political efforts in my case, so that lessons can be learned that will better protect other Canadians in the future.
Finally, I would like to express enormous thanks to everyone across the country who spoke up for me, by sending postcards, signing petitions and attending rallies. Keep up your efforts to defend human rights. It gives prisoners hope, and it gains us our freedom.