ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - A Canadian citizen could face the death penalty in Ethiopia after a court found him guilty on Monday of being a member of a rebel group fighting for autonomy for an ethnically Somali part of the country.
Bashir Ahmed Makhtal — who was born in Ethiopia but became a Canadian citizen in 1994 — was found guilty of membership of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), diplomats in capital Addis Ababa told Reuters.
“Bashir was convicted of membership of the ONLF and supporting terrorism in Ogaden,” one diplomat who declined to be named said.
Ethiopia calls the ONLF a terrorist group which it says is supported by rival Eritrea. The ONLF routinely accuses government forces of rights abuses in the Ogaden region, which borders neighbouring Somalia.
Bashir — whose grandfather was a founder of the ONLF — was arrested in 2006 crossing the border from Somalia into Kenya after Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia to oust an Islamist group who had taken control of capital Mogadishu.
The 36-year-old says he ran a used-clothing store in Kenya and often visited Mogadishu to buy clothes. He says he was fleeing fighting after the invasion.
Bashir’s family say he was then held in Ethiopia for more than two years and denied consular visits. Canadian officials have attended his trial hearings.
Ethiopian forces launched an assault against the ONLF — who have been fighting for more than 20 years — after a 2007 attack on an exploration field owned by a subsidiary of Sinopec, China’s biggest refiner and petrochemicals producer.
The rebels last month again warned foreign oil and gas exploration companies not to invest in the region.
The separatist cause has been fuelled by widespread resentment at the region’s low level of development. Until Chinese engineers arrived in 2007, the entire region had only 30 km (20 miles) of tarmac road.
Cash-strapped Ethiopia is keen to attract foreign investors and says the rebels have now been defeated.
Bashir will be sentenced on August 3, diplomats said.