Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Canadian in Ethiopia terror case

Ogaden National Liberation Front fighters  (file pic)
The ONLF says it is fighting for the local Somali-speaking population

A Canadian citizen, allegedly held in secret detention for two years, has appeared in an Ethiopian court accused of terrorism charges.

Ethiopian-born Bashir Makhtal denies being a leader of the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Mr Bashir, who was among dozens of people arrested when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, faces the death penalty if convicted.

The former Toronto resident's case was adjourned to 20 April.

Mr Bashir's appearance on Thursday at the High Court in Addis Ababa was not his first - he pleaded not guilty at a previous hearing to all four charges:

• that he was a member of the ONLF central committee between 1999 and 2006

• that he recruited and trained ONLF members at a military camp in Eritrea

• that he led a contingent of the ONLF in the field against the Ethiopian army in Ethiopia's Somali region

• that he collaborated with Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts in Eritrea in an effort to overthrow the Ethiopian government

Mr Bashir was transferred from military custody to a prison near Addis Ababa two months ago, his lawyer said.

He has repeatedly denied involvement in the ONLF and says he is being persecuted because his grandfather helped found the rebel group decades ago.

The ONLF, founded in 1984, is fighting for the Somali-speaking population in Ethiopia's oil-rich Ogaden region, saying it has been marginalised by Addis Ababa.

Prosecutors failed to present witnesses, saying they were all in the Somali region and could not reach the court because of transport problems.

The judge said that if they could not produce the witnesses in the next court appearance, the case would be tried without them.

Judge's rights reminder

The judge also reminded prison officials that Mr Bashir was entitled to access to consular officials, who were present in the court on Thursday.

Mr Bashir's family in Canada say he was held in solitary for nearly two years with no access to lawyers or embassy officials.

His relatives say he was a businessman, trading in second-hand clothes and was in Mogadishu on a business trip when the Ethiopians invaded.

Mr Bashir, who has a Canadian passport, was subsequently arrested crossing the border between Somalia and Kenya. His family say he was trying to get away from the fighting.

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Addis Ababa says he is one of the last of the foreign detainees from 2006 still to be held, and the first to face charges in a normal criminal court.

Other foreign detainees - among them Swedes, Americans and Kenyans - were questioned and eventually released into the custody of their own governments.

The Canadian government, under pressure from the Somali community there, has been urging the Ethiopian government to either charge and try him, or let him go, says our correspondent.

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