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Supporters of Canadian man fight Ethiopian court's life sentence

OTTAWA - Supporters of a Canadian sentenced to life behind bars in Ethiopia want the Harper government to suspend aid to the African country over what they consider a politically motivated sham.

OTTAWA - Supporters of a Canadian sentenced to life behind bars in Ethiopia want the Harper government to suspend aid to the African country over what they consider a politically motivated sham.

The Ethiopian High Court ordered Bashir Makhtal to spend life in prison Monday, disappointing backers fighting for his return to Canada.

"I'm really devastated about it," said Said Maktal, a cousin in Hamilton, Ont., who spells his name differently. "I don't think that Bashir's been given the due process.

"This is the time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to intervene in the case."

Makhtal, 40, was convicted of terrorism-related charges last week in Addis Ababa.

The court found Makhtal guilty of membership in the political and military central committees of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front; working to co-ordinate attacks against the Ethiopian army, and working with the Eritrean government in recruiting and training insurgents.

"The nature of these crimes forces the court to impose punishment that would act as a lesson to deter others," the High Court said Monday. "And the court has decided to impose a life sentence."

Thumbing his rosary, Makhtal - who could have received the death penalty - remained calm as the sentence was read.

The Ethiopian-born Makhtal, a Canadian citizen, says he's innocent. He is appealing the conviction.

Makhtal settled in Canada as a refugee in 1991 and later moved to Kenya, opening a used-clothing business. He was working in Somalia when Ethiopian troops invaded in late 2006.

Makhtal fled back to Kenya, but was detained along with several others at the Kenya-Somalia border.

Lorne Waldman, Makhtal's Toronto lawyer, has denounced the legal proceedings as a "kangaroo court" that ignored important evidence. Some allegations suggest Makhtal was involved in military activity at a time when he wasn't even in the region, Waldman says.

He wants the federal government to pressure Ethiopia by cutting off all development aid short of humanitarian assistance.

"We're now looking to them to make a very forceful response to Ethiopia," Waldman said.

"And we hope that if enough political pressure is brought to bear that they will in fact do the right thing and let Mr. Makhtal leave the country as quickly as possible.

"There have been other foreign nationals in Ethiopia who have been expelled after they've been given serious sentences. It wouldn't be unprecedented in Ethiopia."

Waldman said he would "aggressively pursue" a previously filed Federal Court lawsuit aimed at forcing Canada to halt development aid to Addis Ababa.

In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said the government is "extremely disappointed" by the sentence, adding Canada would "continue to explore all options for supporting Bashir Makhtal."

Catherine Loubier, a spokeswoman for Cannon, said government efforts would focus on the continuing court proceedings - not suspending development dollars. "We're not considering cutting aid because we're not there yet."

Waldman says political action is needed.

"Given the nature of the legal proceedings in Ethiopia, we have no expectation that the appeal will result in a different verdict."

Maktal said he wants Harper to pick up the phone and make Canada's concern for his cousin clear to the Ethiopian government.

"We've passed the time of waiting, and this is the time of action. We'd like to see the government do something good for Bashir.

"I don't want to see him die there for something he never committed."

(With a report from Samson Haileyesus of the Associated Press in Addis Ababa)

 
 
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