Thursday, March 19, 2009

Impeccable timing by a wily pol?

Am I the only one harbouring no doubt unworthy suspicions about Transport Minister John Baird's sudden eruption into the media regarding the plight of Canadian citizen Bashir Makhtal?

I have blogged about Makhtal before. He's been stuck in an Ethiopian prison for two years or so, with apparently precious little help from us. We certainly haven't heard much concern expressed by our government on the subject--until very recently. Now Baird is telling us that "Canada will be watching what happens...very closely" during Makhtal's trial in Ethiopia. Three foreign ministers, Peter MacKay, David Emerson and Lawrence Cannon, we are assured, have been on the case all along, not to mention Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai. "In all my years as an elected official," says Baird, "I have never personally seen such a strong and sustained focus on one consular case."

This is exciting, isn't it--how all the stops have been pulled out at the highest levels to help a fellow-citizen? Obhrai has even met with the Ethiopian Prime Minister to express our concern.

But all of this surfaces just as another case is coming to a head--that of citizen Abousfian Abdelrazik, marooned in our embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, separated from his family for more than five years, imprisoned, tortured, and--thus far--prevented from returning home by Foreign Affairs officials and the Harper government. (Obhrai visited him, too, and saw his torture-scars first-hand, but Foreign Affairs lawyers tried to suggest that they were self-inflicted.) Suspicions have been raised that citizens who are brown and Muslim, and have found themselves in trouble in faraway places, just don't seem to get the Brenda Martin treatment.

In fact, Abdelrazik, rather than getting assistance from his government, has been the subject of some cruel little games by the authorities. He was promised travel documents if he could find a plane to fly him home; then, when he did just that last Fall, he was told that he needed a paid-up ticket--which he could not afford to buy. And anyone who wanted to help him out with the needed funds, we were informed, would be facing ten years in jail.

Now, just as the Abdelrazik case is coming to a head, with editorials in the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, sterling on-going coverage of the case by Globe reporter Paul Koring, and an act of civil disobedience by many Canadians who went ahead and bought him his ticket anyway, the Makhtal case has burst upon the scene.

Different standards for non-white citizens? Hell, no. Makhtal "is a Canadian citizen," thunders Baird. "His passport is identical to yours and mine, his rights and responsibilities as a Canadian are exactly the same."

Baird is absolutely right, of course, and it would be churlish, I suppose, to question the purity of his motives. But will Abousfian Abdelrazik, having complied against all odds with the government's latest condition, be on his plane home on April 3, travel documents in hand, to be reunited with his family after six years? Are "his rights and responsibilities as a Canadian...exactly the same" as mine, yours and John Baird's?

Let's wait and see. Not a few Canadians will be "watching what happens next very closely."


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