A man is back on Canadian soil after being in an Ethiopian prison for 11 years.
Tears filled the eyes of Bashir Makhtal and his family members as they embraced Saturday at Pearson Airport for the first time in more than a decade.
Makhtal was released from Ethiopia on Thursday and made his way home into the arms of his wife, brother, nieces and nephews—some of whom were born during his captivity—meeting him for the first time.
Makhtal was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 for terrorism-related charges after a trial that Amnesty International and Makhtal’s lawyer called unfair.
Canadian officials had been working for years to secure his release.
Makhtal was born in Ethiopia and settled in Canada after moving here as a refugee. He later moved to Kenya where he operated a used-clothing business.
He was working in Somalia in 2006, but fled back to the Kenyan border when Ethiopian troops invaded. He was detained at the border and summarily deported to Ethiopia, a move that Amnesty International called unlawful.
In 2009, Makhtal was convicted of terrorism-related crimes and was handed a life sentence without the ability to communicate with anyone outside of prison. His grandfather was alledgedly a member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group in Ethiopa. Gloria Nafziger, a campaigner with Amnesty, says Ethiopian officials believed Makhtal was connected to the group.
During that time, Makhtal claimed he was tortured and was further denied medical care there.
Amnesty International had been working on the case since it heard of his arrest and the torture he endured while being held captive.
“We were afraid he would be sentenced to death,” Nafziger said. “This man never had a fair trial.”
Nafziger said the Canadian government was working for years to try 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.
At one point, Nafziger said, Ethiopian and Canadian officials had agreed on a prisoner transfer, but Makhtal refused, saying he was not guilty and would not come back to Canada just to be put behind bars again.
“There were constant efforts being made,” Nafziger said.
She added that Makhtal is “exhausted and tired, but in very good spirits.”
“His emotional and psychological being will have to be taken care of now.”
With files from Star staff and The Canadian Press