Canadian man imprisoned for 11 years in Ethiopia returns to Toronto

A Canadian citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than 11 years has returned to Toronto after a gruelling campaign by his family and an international human rights groups to free him.

Bashir Makhtal's conviction in Ethiopia has been widely criticized by human rights groups

Bashir Makhtal landed at Pearson International airport in Toronto on Saturday after spending more than 11 years in an Ethopian prison. (Courtesy of Amnesty International)

A Canadian citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia for more than 11 years has returned to Toronto after a gruelling campaign by his family and an international human rights group to free him. 

Bashir Makhtal was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 after he was arrested by Ethiopian authorities for his alleged involvement in an independence movement. Amnesty International called the charges against him "blatantly unfair" and said he was denied due process throughout his imprisonment. 

​"This day has been so long in coming, we hardly are able to believe it is true," said Said Maktal, Bashir's cousin, in a statement released by Amnesty International on Saturday. Said, who now lives in Hamilton, was instrumental in bringing public scrutiny to his cousin's case over the years. 

Makhtal was released from a Addis Ababa prison on April 18. According to Lorne Waldman, a prominent immigration lawyer in Toronto who helped in the effort to have Makhtal freed, the charges against him were unfounded. 

"I think from the beginning I was convinced that Bashir was innocent. Based upon the evidence that I saw, there was no evidence to suggest that he was in any way involved in any illegal activities," Waldman told CBC News.

Family targeted

Makhtal's grandfather was reportedly a member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group made up of ethnic Somalis within Ethiopia who want independence from Ethiopia. Ethiopian authorities accused Makhtal of being a member himself.

Makhtal was on a business trip in Somalia in December 2006 when Ethiopian troops invaded the country. He attempted to flee to Kenya, but was intercepted and unlawfully sent to Addis Ababa in 2007. He has been in prison ever since.

Makhtal's family and friends greeted him in Toronto. Some of his extended family was forced to flee Ethopia in the wake of his arrest. (Courtesy of Amnesty International)

During his detention, he was denied medical care for a number of significant health issues. Ethiopian authorities also targeted his extended family, forcing some 12 relatives to flee to a refugee camp in Kenya. 

Gloria Nafziger, a rights campaigner with Amnesty International, said the ordeal has taken a tremendous and incalculable toll on the family. Until only recently, it wasn't clear Makhtal would ever walk out of a prison a free man.

"It's one of those moments that you just dream about and you don't ever believe is actually going to become real," Nafziger said. She was among a small group of family and friends who waited for Makhtal to walk through the arrivals gate at Pearson International airport on Saturday. 

"A free man back in Canada reunited with his family, how can you not cry when you see that happen? It's just one of the most wonderful days."

Bashir Makhtal was on a business trip in Somalia in 2006 when he was arrested by invading Ethiopian troops. In 2009, he was sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges that have been summarily criticized by human rights observors. (Toronto Star/Canadian Press)

Long push for freedom

Makhtal first came to Canada as a refugee in 1991 and became a citizen three years after. Despite his ties to Canada, the federal government struggled to gain traction in the push for his release.

"These cases where people are detained abroad are extremely difficult because there's only a limited number of things that governments can do and that the lawyers and advisers can do," Waldman said.

According to Nafziger, the Canadian government was working for years to negotiate Makhtal's release. An access to information request by The Canadian Press in 2009 found hundreds of pages of records revealing the government's frustrated efforts to assist him.

Said Maktal led the campaign to have his cousin freed from prison in Ethiopia. (Wendy Martin/CBC)

"There were constant efforts being made," said Nafziger. "They would raise it in diplomatic meetings with the Ethiopian government constantly ... There's been, in the last few years, a really high-profile attention being paid."

 A change of government in Addis Ababa also contributed to Makhtal's release, Waldman explained. 

"I think perhaps maybe the cumulative effect of all these years of pressure by the family, by the lawyers, by the government of Canada, they finally just decided it was a big irritant to Canadian-Ethiopian relations and it was time to let him go."

Makhtal will take a few days to settle in with his family before making a public statement, Waldman said. 

His cousin Said expressed gratitude on his behalf in Amnesty International's statement.

"We send our thanks to everyone who signed a petition, wrote a letter or came to a public event about Bashir's case," he said.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp, Carly Thomas and The Canadian Press