A tall, sharply dressed man with warm, reassuring smile walked toward me and shook my hands. It’s a firm but friendly handshake. For a moment I thought he’s a brother or cousin of Bashir Makhtal, a Canadian citizen who spent more than 11 years in Ethiopia’s notorious prisons on bogus terrorism charges.
For someone who spent the last decade languishing in maximum security prisons — being shifted in and out of solitary confinement where he endured brutal torture —Bashir looks incredibly well.
It’s only been a month since Bashir walked free from the infamous Maekelawi prison in Addis Ababa. He was convicted on terrorism charges and accused of being a member of the outlawed rebel group, Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). He denies the charges. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 in a trial deemed sham by rights groups.
Days after he was freed, Bashir flew to Canada and was welcomed home at Toronto airport in an emotional reunion with his family. On Tuesday when I met him in Ottawa, he had just hosted a press conference and was waiting for the start of a meeting organized by Amnesty International, the rights group that took up his cause a decade ago. Seamlessly transitioning between events, Bashir appears upbeat and content. The trauma and scars of his eleven years of torment weren’t visible at least on the surface.
He ushered me into a conference room of Amnesty International’s Canadian headquarters, where his wife Aziza and cousin, Said Makhtal, were waiting. I recognized Said immediately. During the entirety of Bashir’s ordeal, Said was the public face of the campaign to free his cousin. He has made plenty of media appearances over the past decade in which he urged the Canadian government to pressure Ethiopian authorities to release Bashir.
Despite the psychological and financial toll they have endured, both Said and Aziza looked remarkably well and still elated.
Bashir speaks with a soft tone. He has an easy-going demeanor. He didn’t hesitate to delve into the horrific and tragic injustices that shaped the last decade of his life.
OPride: First off, on behalf of our readers and staff, I am glad that you are with your family and that your nightmare is over. Welcome back to Canada. We’d also like to thank you for willing to share your story with us.
Bashir: Thank you very much. I’m thankful you are here, as there are a lot of things I need to share with Ethiopians, with the world about my case and about what happens in Ethiopia.
OPride: Most of us heard of your plight as a Canadian citizen fighting a politically motivated sentence. But there are many who are eager to get to know you better. Tell us about your upbringing. Where does the Bashir Makhtal story begin?
Bashir: I was born in the town of Deghabour, Ethiopia. I lived there until the age of six. As I’m sure you know, the people of my region, the Ogaden, have faced systematic oppression at the hands of different Ethiopian governments. My family fled this oppression for neighboring Somalia and I grew up and went to school in the capital Mogadishu. I had a normal childhood.
OPride: Years later, when you were accused by an Ethiopian court of being an ONLF fighter, Ethiopian government media pointed to the fact that your grandfather, Makhtal Dahir, was the founder of the ONLF. As a child growing up, did you see much of Makhtal Dahir? Did he influence you in any way?
Bashir: It’s true that I’m the grandson of Makhtal Dahir, the founding chairman of the ONLF. He was a great leader and fighter for the cause of the Ogaden people. Somalis have suffered unbearably under the Ethiopian imperial and then military dictatorships. My grandfather fought to secure basic rights for his people — nothing else. He was among the first to launch a revolt against the system that was killing his people. We know his history very well, but I saw none of this as a child as he had become old and had ceased participation in these sorts of activities. For example, he was uncompromising on the ONLF agenda and opposed the initiative of the WSLF (Western Somali Liberation Front) because that group had the goal of incorporating our region into Somalia. The ONLF pursued independence from Ethiopia and an end to the persecution of our people. My grandfather and his colleagues didn’t like the idea of the demarcated Ogaden territory being absorbed into Somalia. My grandfather’s story is well known, but as I said most of it happened before I was born so I wasn’t a witness to it.
OPride: I understand you immigrated to Canada as a young man. Tell us about your life here in Canada prior to your arrest.
Bashir: Yes, I actually went to Italy first. My elder brother was already in Canada and his presence here influenced my decision to come to immigrate to Canada. I arrived in 1991. I lived in the Toronto area and pursued my education, studying Computer Science at DeVry University. I worked hard for my goals and my degrees. I eventually got a job in my domain at the CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce).
OPride: You became a Canadian citizen and after hard work and tribulations; entered the professional job market and started giving back to society. Then, in 2001, 10 years after you arrived in Canada, you decided to return to East Africa. What was the reason for your trip?
Bashir: I had a good life and a decent job in Canada. But I had intended on providing for not just myself, but my family members. I have around 20 siblings. On my salary, my contributions to them were limited. I was looking for options when a friend of mine — a fellow Somali and also a Canadian citizen — came to me with a proposal. He told me there was a market for selling used clothes in the region that would be very profitable. His business plan seemed foolproof and we became partners. So we left Canada with an idea. I was based in Djibouti, but we operated in Somalia, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates. Business was good. I provided for my family and traveled frequently between these three countries. From 2001 until my arrest [in December 2006], I lived a successful life as a businessman.
OPride: The main charge against you was that you were an ONLF member and it is linked to this period of your life. The Ethiopian government has always maintained that during this time, you made a trip to Eritrea that was not for business reasons. Eritrea has a history of supporting the ONLF. Did you ever travel to Eritrea and if so, what were the reasons for doing so?
Bashir: It is true that I traveled to Eritrea on two occasions. I never claimed to have traveled to Eritrea for business reasons. I will make this part clear to you. Sometime before 2004, the ONLF held a general assembly in London where they published a communique which had information about the organization’s goals and details about its leadership. I have never been involved with the ONLF in any shape, way or form. Yet, to my surprise, I found my name listed among those as members of the group’s leadership team. Not only me, other notable Somalis also found themselves on this list. The ONLF politburo members knew my identity as a grandson of Makhtal Dahir and a member of the Somali community. But they never consulted me on the inclusion of my name among members of the organization. So I contacted them and requested the removal of my name.
I was told that I have to appear before a committee in person in order for my request to be processed. This is the reason for my first trip. The said committee was at the time-based in Asmara, Eritrea. So in 2004, I traveled to Asmara for the first time to meet with ONLF representatives. When I got there, I was told that some key officials weren’t present for various reasons and that I wouldn’t be able to get my name removed. I had to wait for another occasion. I stayed in Eritrea for two days and left. In early 2006, the ONLF had another meeting. I went back to Eritrea to clear my name. This time, they heard me out.
I left Asmara having been told that my request will be processed. Sure enough, in June of that year, I received two notices from the organization. One was the newly published list of ONLF leaders with my name removed from the list. The second was an official letter from the ONLF leadership apologizing to me for any inconveniences caused. I received these in June of 2006, and as you know, I was arrested six months later. I have never been a member of the ONLF. I had these documents in Canada. I managed to get them faxed to Ethiopia. Both documents, including the ONLF’s official apology, were submitted to the judge as evidence of my innocence during my trial. I think they were never even taken into consideration.
OPride: Let’s rewind a bit and look at the events leading up to your arrest. The narrative long held by the Ethiopian court that sentenced you is that you were taken into custody by Kenyan troops on the Somali border after having fought with militants in Somalia. This was during the first weeks of the Ethiopian army’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia. What led you to being caught on the Kenyan Somali border?
Bashir: Well, as I stated earlier, I was a businessman who frequented Mogadishu regularly. I was in the capital during those last few days before the Ethiopian army took over. At the time, the Ethiopian government was explaining to the whole world that everyone — the Islamists, the ONLF, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and others — were all in Somalia planning to launch attacks against Ethiopia. This is all a fabrication. But it became clear that they would use this as a pretext to invade the country. I realized that the situation had become unstable and that with the Ethiopian soldiers coming, it would be too dangerous to remain in Somalia. So I tried to book my flight out. What many don’t know is that in those last days before the invasion, the Ethiopian government planned every detail.
Together, Ethiopia, with the help of the U.S. government and the so-called Somali Transitional Government sealed the country’s airspace. There were no flights allowed in and out of Somalia. There was no way out of the country. I had planned on flying out to Dubai but was unable to. I waited a few days and then I realized that I if I stayed any longer, I could be caught up in a war. So that’s when I decided to travel by land out of Mogadishu. I rented a car and was driven to the Kenyan border. From there, I crossed the border into Kenya and traveled to Garissa [northeastern Kenya), where there was an immigration office. I planned on applying for a visa there which I could use to stay in Kenya for a few days, enough time to travel to Nairobi and book a flight back to Djibouti. Many other foreigners were already there. With no flights out of Somalia, they were left stranded and took this same route to Garissa.
OPride: So you weren’t actually captured on the border by Kenyan soldiers as was widely reported. You made your way peacefully to Garissa.
Bashir: That’s right. At Garissa’s immigration office, we had to undergo screening. Kenyan authorities were wary of militants infiltrating the country, so they took their time with us. I was held there for five days, as they looked at my documents and file. After five days, they told me I was in the clear. They would transfer me to Nairobi. Everything seemed routine so far. On the sixth day, I was taken to a police station in Nairobi. Coincidentally, this police station is located next to the Canadian embassy. I expected my wait in that police officer to be the end of it. But I remained there for weeks. There were a number of other foreigners with me and we each waited for our turns, but my wait was the longest. While I was there, two Ethiopian intelligence agents came to the station and started observing me from close range. They chatted with the Kenyan police officials and would come back and sit with us. I felt something was fishy.
OPride: How did you know that they were, in fact, Ethiopian intelligence officers? Did they have any clothing or visible markers that gave away their identities?
Bashir: No they were plainclothes officers. I grew suspicious of them because they appeared out of nowhere and they immediately concentrated on me. I asked them “who are you?” One of them told me, “I’m a foreigner stranded like you.” I didn’t believe him. I’ve lived around East Africans all my life. We know each other’s traits very well. I identified them as being Tigrayans just by looking at them. Then my suspicion grew into fear when one of them asked if he could videotape me. I objected. At this time, I had enough. I contacted a friend in Nairobi. He came to the police station and gave me a cellular phone. I knew that I could always be a target of harassment and intimidation by the Ethiopian government, so I used the phone to notify the Canadian embassy of my circumstances. I was wary of what would happen next.
OPride: So the first contact between Ethiopian and Kenyan security forces happened in Nairobi?
Bashir: Yes. Both cooperated to ensure that I was transferred to Ethiopian custody. I have insider information that this was a personal request by [the late] Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who went as far as promising the Kenyan leader at the time (Mwai) Kibaki millions of dollars for his reelection campaign as a gift for handing me over to Ethiopian authorities. I didn’t know this at the time. From the police station, we were taken in vehicles to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. As foreign nationals, we were told we would be deported back to our countries.
Aboard the vehicle, people chatted and talked, so nobody noticed me make a last phone call. I called my wife [in Canada] and told her I felt uncertain about what was happening to me. At the airport, there were state journalists and Kenyan security officials. They wanted to report on the story that foreigners fleeing Somalia were returning home. I, along with a group of foreigners, was separated from the rest and taken to the cargo section of the airport.
I noticed the plane on the runway that we were supposed to board. Having flown back and forth across the region, I could identify the plane models and the locations they would fly to. The rather small plane was one used to fly from Nairobi to Mogadishu. It wasn’t what was used for intercontinental flights. Why would they send me to Somalia? I went up to a Kenyan security officer and asked: “Excuse me, if I’m being deported, as a Canadian, shouldn’t I be deported to my country?”
The Kenyan security officer laughed at me and told me in a mocking tone, “yeah we will send you to your country.” When it was time to board, I refused. I refused to move and when they started to physically force me on the plane, I screamed out loud. I created a scene. When they saw that I wouldn’t go willingly, Kenyan soldiers came over to me and severely beat me. I boarded the plane bloodied. The attack on me dislocated my shoulder and left me in searing pain. I felt the pain in my shoulder for the next two years. The plane departed for Somalia. By that time, the Ethiopian army was already in the capital, Mogadishu. From there, I was put on an Ethiopian military plane and flown into Addis Ababa on January 16, 2007.
OPride: You were physically assaulted at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Despite neither being born in Somalia nor being a citizen of that country, you were deported there — which is an extraordinary rendition and thus against international law. There were a host of violations of your rights even before entering Ethiopian custody. At the time, it was reported that you had acquired the services of a lawyer by the name of Mekuria Tafesse. Did this lawyer ever manage to speak of these violations to the judge?
Bashir: I have never met this Mekuria Tafesse. He was hired by my family and the Canadian embassy to defend me. I had no access to any lawyers during the first 18 months of my incarceration. Mr. Mekuria was given a lot of money, I’m not sure how much exactly but I can find out for you. He never once met with me, and, in the end, he left the job before I had made a single court appearance –making a hefty sum and doing absolutely nothing for me. I had another lawyer, Gebreamlak Tekle who was appointed just as my trial was set to begin. He is the one who presented the judge with the ONLF apology document that should have cleared me. But this case wasn’t about evidence. It was completely fabricated from beginning to end.
OPride: What part of the case against you do you think was fabricated?
Bashir: My trial began in August 2008. I knew I was innocent and had nothing to hide. I even waved my right to not be cross-examined. But then the eyewitnesses began to testify. One came out and said under oath that I was an ONLF commander who he had seen fighting in Somalia. But the second witness had the most ridiculous testimony. He told the court that he had seen me among the ONLF fighters who carried out the attack on the Abole oil field in the Ogaden. It was the attack that left many Ethiopian and Chinese oil workers dead. That incident happened in April 2007. I was detained in December 2006. How could I carry out an attack and kill oil workers in the Ogaden if I was imprisoned at Maekelawi? I had been incarcerated for four months when this attack took place. When I heard this false testimony, I knew that the whole court process was corrupted. Later on, I discovered that some of those who testified against me had signed a written affidavit, declaring that everything they said in court was untrue. It was all fake. It was planned. They wanted me to suffer. They stole me from my wife and family.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity. In Part II, Bashir talks about his time in prison, the people he met and the injustices he’d witnessed, as well as his release. Check back soon.