Ethiopia jails Canadian ONLF rebel for life

An Ethiopian court jailed a Canadian for life on Monday after he was convicted of membership of a rebel group fighting for independence for an ethnically Somali part of the country.

Bashir Ahmed Makhtal was born in Ethiopia but travelled to Canada as a refugee and became a citizen in 1994. He was found guilty last week on three charges related to membership of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

”The court has decided against the death penalty which is the maximum penalty for the charges,” Judge Adem Ibrahim said at the Federal High Court in the capital Addis Ababa. ”The court sentences the defendant to life in prison.”

Bashir, who left Ethiopia aged 11 and does not speak the local Amharic language, did not react as the sentence was read. His lawyer, Gebreamlak Gebregiorgis, told Reuters he would appeal against both the conviction and sentence next week.

Ethiopia denounces the ONLF — which wants independence for the remote eastern Ogaden region — as a terrorist group that it says is supported by long-time rival Eritrea.

The ONLF accuses the Ethiopian military of routinely killing civilians and burning villages in Ogaden, which borders Somalia.

Ogaden is eyed by foreign oil and gas companies who think its huge deserts might be rich in mineral deposits.

Analysts say the region’s location between the border and Addis Ababa makes the Ethiopian government reluctant to give it up after a long history of hostilities with Somalia.

Arrested on border
Bashir — whose grandfather was an ONLF founder — was arrested in 2006 crossing into Kenya from Somalia after Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia to oust an Islamist movement that had taken control of the capital Mogadishu.

The 40-year-old says he ran a second-hand clothing store in Kenya and often visited Mogadishu to buy clothes. He says he was fleeing the fighting after the invasion.

Bashir’s family says he was subsequently detained in secret in Ethiopia for more than two years and denied consular visits. Canadian officials have attended his trial hearings.

Human rights groups have criticised the trial and say the prosecution failed to produce any credible witnesses. Bashir’s supporters say he was arrested because of his family’s ONLF links. They say he was never a member of the guerrilla group.

The Ethiopian government denies his trial was unfair.

Ethiopian forces launched an assault against the separatist ONLF — who have been fighting for more than 20 years — after a 2007 attack on an oil exploration field owned by a subsidiary of Sinopec, China’s biggest refiner and petrochemicals producer.

The rebels warned foreign oil and gas companies again last month not to explore in the region. The separatist cause has been fuelled by resentment at the region’s low level of development. Until Chinese engineers arrived in 2007, the entire region had only 30km of tarmac road. — Reuters

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Barry Malone
Barry Malone works from Washington, DC. Executive Producer, @AJStream. Previously: Al Jazeera Online Editor / Reuters correspondent in East Africa and Middle East. Tweet news and nonsense. Barry Malone has over 23734 followers on Twitter.

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