Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Makhtal diversion

Well, folks, can't say I didn't warn you.

Bashir Makhtal is a Canadian citizen now serving a life sentence in Ethiopia after being kidnapped in Kenya more than two years ago. He suffered in an Ethiopian torture-dungeon during most of that time, and, no surprise, the Canadian government did little or nothing to help him.

Until, that is, the government found itself increasingly on the defensive for its appalling treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazik.

Suddenly, there was Transport Minister John Baird this past March trumpeting about the government sending "strong signals" to Ethiopia, and demanding that Makhtal be given a fair trial. "[T]he government of Canada at senior levels will be watching this very closely," he claimed. By golly, he'd travel personally to Ethiopia if need be.

Makhtal is an ethnic Somali, and Baird has a large Somalian population in his riding. That might explain why a Minister of Transport, rather than, say, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, took the lead on this one.

Anyway, good old Baird. While Lawrence Cannon and Stephen Harper remained silent, he jumped to, amid a flurry of press releases. Makhtal's conditions improved, we were told, and he would get his trial at last.

Makhtal faced the death penalty if convicted. And he was indeed convicted in a farcical proceeding, but on August 3 he was given a sentence of life imprisonment instead. Suddenly there was Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs, summoning the acting Ethiopian Ambassador
a day later to express "concern," while Baird was relegated to having a chat with Makhtal's cousin.

Now, what does all of this mean concretely?

Even last week, the government was telling Makhtal's family and supporters that diplomatic channels were the way to go while Makhtal's lawyers prepared an appeal--none of that nasty withholding of aid money that they were calling for.

But Cannon's office clarified: an appeal of the conviction through the Ethiopian "justice" system would have to run its course. And that course has been described as "lengthy."

The deployment of this case by the Harper government, quite frankly, marks a new low in political cynicism. It looks to have been, from the very first, nothing more than a red herring. We have no evidence--only the government's say-so--that any pressure at all was really exerted upon the Ethiopians. But what a useful foil to use in timely fashion against an increasing number of us who have noted, as cases continue to pile up, that the Harper regime's concern for Canadians of colour in trouble abroad is somewhat less than enthusiastic.

When all is said and done, Makhtal remains in prison. The government blathers on about its alleged support for him, but refuses to use the considerable financial leverage at its disposal, which is really the only leverage it has. Bottom line: yet another brown Canadian in trouble overseas isn't returning home anytime soon.

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