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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government should consider curbing foreign aid to Ethiopia to express its unhappiness over the case of a Canadian jailed for life in the African country, a lawyer for the man said on Tuesday.
An Ethiopian court jailed Bashir Makhtal on Monday after he was convicted of membership in a rebel group fighting for independence for an ethnically Somali part of the country.
Lorne Waldman, Makhtal's Canadian lawyer, said the charges were baseless and he called on Ottawa to look at its aid to Ethiopia. In 2006-07, the latest period for which figures were available, the assistance totaled C$83 million ($77 million).
"We have a lot of leverage because we provide a very generous aid package to Ethiopia," Waldman told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
"I believe we have the power to influence whatever happens to Bashir Makhtal and we're hopeful the Canadian government will be very forceful in its approaches to the Ethiopians over the next few days," he said.
Makhtal's relatives in Canada, speaking after the sentence was handed down, also called on Ottawa to freeze foreign aid.
Canadian officials did not directly address the possibility of ending aid, saying they were waiting to see what happened with an appeal promised by Makhtal's Ethiopian lawyer.
"This is a hypothetical question linked to the success or failure of the appeal process. We continue to monitor the case closely," said Catherine Loubier, chief spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.
"(We) will continue to explore all options for supporting Bashir Makhtal ... any aid decisions are made according to several criteria, with an aim at helping those in need."
Waldman said he did not expect the appeal to succeed. Cannon said on Monday that Canada was "extremely disappointed" by the life sentence.
Makhtal, who was born in Ethiopia but became a Canadian citizen in 1994, was found guilty last week on three charges related to membership of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). His grandfather was a founder of the group.
The Ogaden Human Rights Committee (OHRC), which calls itself independent, said Bashir was not a member of the ONLF and not involved in politics.
"On the basis of available information about his case, the OHRC believes that there was not credible evidence for his conviction," the group said in a statement. "His trial was a travesty. (He is) a victim of a political vendetta."
Ethiopia says the ONLF -- which wants independence for the eastern Ogaden region -- is a terrorist group supported by rival Eritrea. The ONLF accuses the Ethiopian military of routinely killing civilians and burning villages.
Foreign oil and gas companies think Ogaden's huge deserts might be rich in mineral deposits. The ONLF has warned foreign companies their workers will be attacked if they attempt exploration in the region.
With additional reporting by Barry Malone in Addis Ababa; editing by Rob Wilson