Here is a nightmare adventure as bad as anything cooked up in television dramas, and it is all true. Without our help, a very good man may die.
Speaking out against radical Islamism and advocating dialogue and diplomatic relations with Israel are apparently "crimes" punishable by death in Bangladesh. Fearless journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is on trial for sedition, a capital offence, because of those stands. His trial begins October 12. That is hardly the worst part of his story.
Salah was one of the first to warn about the rise of Islamist radicalism in Bangladesh
, explaining how it was carefully incubated in Madrassahs
and encouraged by corrupt authorities. The world was surprised when bombs began going off all over Dhakka some time later, but Salah was not surprised at all.
When the US pressed Bangladesh to recognize Israel, Salah supported the move through his newspapers. He established contact with an Israeli dialogue group, IFLAC, and attempted to come to Israel to talk about encouraging dialogue through the media. He was arrested at the airport in November, 2003
as he was about to board a flight for Israel. He began living a Kafkaeseque nightmare that has continued for three years. Salah wrote several letters from jail describing the conditions and his failing health.
He was charged with sedition, and with a passport offence for attempted travel to Israel. The Arab world press generated outrageous rumors insisting that Salah was an agent of the Israeli Mossad intelligence organization. Pressure from US officials and the House of Representatives ultimately obtained his release on bail after he had served much longer jail time than the passport offence penalty would have required.
Salah was convinced that the sedition charges would be dropped, but that was not to be. The case has dragged on and on as the government sought to fabricate a case for sedition. The office of his newspaper was recently bombed and Salah was badly beaten by a mob. It seems that getting beaten up and having your office trashed is also against the law in Bangladesh. Salah now faces an addition "trial" for that "offence." This is how it happened, as Salah relates:
I was assaulted by a mob led by BNP's Cultural Wing leader Helal Khan and Babul Ahmed on 5th of October. Weekly Blitz Managing Editor M. A. Ahsan was also seriously injured, which resulted in suspension of the publication of Weekly Blitz for this week.
...Mr. Ahsan and I immediately rushed to the Shahbagh Police Station and met the officer-in-charge, Rezaul Karim, to lodge a complaint against the attackers and ask that they send police forces to our office to guard our properties. However, the police officer, (who reportedly received TK. 200,000 as a bribe from the attackers) reluctantly asked us to go back to homes, take a shower and meet him after several hours...
The attackers took unlawful possession of our office and looted a number of computers, printers and other valuables from the office. Earlier, when they attacked me, Babul Ahmed shouted, "He is an agent of Jews, kill him". They snatched my mobile phone, took TK. 42,000 cash from my pocket and forcibly took away the key of the vault of the office and looted TK 350,000 cash. It may be mentioned here that police protection was mysteriously withdrawn from our office four days before the attack. Meanwhile, more surprisingly, the government has also withdrawn police protection from my residence, which has definitely put my entire family in to a tremendous horror.
Now, supposedly being given legal protection by the police, we lodged a formal case with the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate on Sunday, 8th of October. The Metropolitan magistrate Mizanur Rahman sent the case to criminal Investigation Department (CID) for investigation and necessary actions. But, the influential people (the attackers) belonging to the ruling party are now trying to press CID to send the matter to cold storage.
Hearing that we lodged the complaint, the attackers, under the direct patronage of the officer-in-charge of Shahbagh Police Station, lodged a false complaint with the police station in the evening of 8th October, where Rezaul Karim (the OC) instructed his fellow officers to issue warrant of arrest against us. On the following day (9th of October) another false complaint was filed by the attackers with the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate, which the court sent to Shahbagh Police Station for investigation and action.
The court also accepted the petition of the attackers and instructed the police to raid my office and residence. This incident forced me to go into hiding on the dark hours of 9th October, as I was told by some journalists that the officer in charge was ready to arrest me, assault me in custody and kill me. The officer in charge is continuously conspiring to do everything to 'give me a proper lesson'. The attackers also held a press conference in Dhaka on 10th of October, where attacker Babul Ahmed said, "Shoaib is an agent of Israel and Jews".
I appeared before the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate Mr. Shafiq Anwar on the 11th of October 2006 through my lawyer Advocate Samarendra Nath Goswami for bail. The magistrate in the bail order wrote, "the counsel appearing for the state (that is a police officer) strongly opposed the bail petition. But, the allegation is confusing. So, the bail is granted"....They want to harrass us and want to see the complete death of Weekly Blitz, which is the most outspoken newspaper in Bangladesh.
If we do not find a way to help him, Salah may be convicted of treason and executed, or killed by the mob. In the best case, his life and health would be ruined by a long jail sentence and a slanderous and violent campaign.
Please write or phone elected representatives, Bangladesh government officials and human rights groups. Frankly, letters from Israel to Bangladesh authorities may harm his case.
An article by Bret Stephens that describes Salah's ordeal is below.
Letters to Bangladesh authorities should be polite and not abusive and should emphasize the harm that this case is doing to the good image of Bangladesh in your country and the need to pursue justice.
Sample letter (with additional contact information in the addresses)
Ms. Khaleda Zia,
Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh,
Old Sangshad Bhaban,
Mr. Md. Lutfozzaman Babar,
Ministry of Home Affairs,
Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh,
Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury
Embassy of Bangladesh
3510 International Drive NW
Washington, DC 20008
Telephone : (202) - 244 - 0183.
Emergency number during evening hours: 202-244-4727
Fax: (202) - 244 - 7830/2771
I am gravely distressed to learn of the trial of award winning journalist Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury for sedition and other false charges. Mr. Choudhury has done nothing more than pursue his job as a journalist and his duty as a citizen. In addition to legal procedings, he has been beaten and robbed and denied police protection. I request your urgent intervention to stop this nightmare travesty of justice, which is ruining the image of Bangladesh around the world.
Additional contact information for Bangladesh officials:
Bangladesh Consulate, New York, Fax: 212-682-9211 Email: email@example.com
Sheikh Mohammed Belal, Counsellor-1 (Pol.), Embassy of Bangladesh, Washington DC.
Tel: 202-244-4616 (W) 718-938-1271 (cell)
Letters to elected officials in your country and human rights groups should explain the case and ask for action to protect Mr. Choudhury.
This is to request your urgent intervention to save the life of award-winning Bangladesh journalist Salahuddin Shoaib Chourhury. He has lived a three year nightmare of jailings, and beatings since he tried to travel to Israel in November 2003, and is now being tried for sedition and other false charges that are capital offences because of his outspoken stands against Islamist extremism.
His case has been the subject of editorials in the New York Times and Wall Street journal. A previous appeal by the US Congress helped bring him a reprieve, but the Bangladesh government has continued to prosecute his case. Without your help, Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury may die.
US Embassy in Dhakka, Bangladesh - firstname.lastname@example.org
US Senators: Go to www.senate.gov
Click on "find your senators" in the top right corner.
US Congresspersons: Go to www.house.gov
Enter your zip code near the top in "find your representative"
Human rights groups
Human Rights Watch:
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA Tel: 1-(212) 290-4700,
Fax: 1-(212) 736-1300 email@example.com
1630 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 500 Washington, DC 20009 USA Tel:1-(202) 612-4321, Fax:1-(202) 612-4333 firstname.lastname@example.org
PLEASE FORWARD THIS MESSAGE TO FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES AROUND THE WORLD AND ASK THEM TO ACT
Darkness in Dhaka
October 10, 2006
Wall Street Journal
Meet Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. As these lines are being written, Mr. Choudhury, a gadfly Bangladeshi journalist, is running for his life. Assuming he survives till Thursday, he will face charges of blasphemy, sedition, treason and espionage in a Dhaka courtroom. His crime is to have tried to attend a writers' conference in Tel Aviv on how the media can foster world peace. If convicted, he could face the death penalty
Welcome to Bangladesh, a country the State Department's Richard Boucher recently portrayed in congressional testimony as "a traditionally moderate and tolerant country" that shares America's "commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law." That's an interesting way to describe a country that is regularly ranked as the world's most corrupt by Transparency International and whose governing coalition, in addition to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, includes two fundamentalist Islamic parties that advocate the imposition of Shariah law. There are an estimated 64,000 madrassas (religious schools) in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Industries is in the hands of Motiur Rahman Nizami, a radical Islamist with a reputation of a violent past. In March the Peace Corps was forced to leave the country for fear of terrorist attacks. Seven other journalists have also been brought up on sedition charges by Ms. Zia's government, most of them for attempting to document Bangladesh's repression of religious minorities.
But few stories better illustrate the Islamist tinderbox that Bangladesh has become than Mr. Choudhury's. "When I began my newspaper [the Weekly Blitz] in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel," he says in the first of several telephone interviews in recent days. "In Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the world's realities."
With that in mind, Mr. Choudhury, then 38, began publishing articles sympathetic to Israel in the Weekly Blitz while reaching out to Jewish and Israeli writers he encountered on the Web. That led to the invitation by the Hebrew Writers' Association, and to Mr. Choudhury's only crime: By attempting to travel to Israel in November 2003, he violated the Passport Act, which forbids citizens from visiting countries (such as Israel and Taiwan) with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations. Violations of the Passport Act are usually punishable by a fine of $8.
But that wasn't the sentence meted to Mr. Choudhury. Following his arrest he was taken into police custody and, as he tells it, blindfolded, beaten and interrogated almost incessantly for 10 days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was spying for Israel. He refused to offer one. He spent the next 16 months in solitary confinement in a Dhaka jail, where he was denied medical treatment for his glaucoma.
By then, Mr. Choudhury's case had come to the attention of Congressman Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who intervened with Bangladesh's ambassador to the U.S. to secure Mr. Choudhury's release on bail, though the charges were never formally dropped. Help also came from Richard Benkin, a Chicago-area activist who has taken up Mr. Choudhury's cause, and the American Jewish Committee, which invited Mr. Choudhury to the U.S. in May to receive its Moral Courage Award. But Mr. Choudhury says he decided to forgo the trip after a government minister warned him, "If you go, it will not be good for you."
In July, the offices of the Weekly Blitz were bombed by Islamic militants. In September, a judge with Islamist ties ordered the case continued, despite the government's reluctance to prosecute, on the grounds that Mr. Choudhury had hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and spoiling the image of Bangladesh world-wide. Last week, the police detail that had been posted to the Blitz's offices since the July bombing mysteriously vanished. The next day the offices were ransacked and Mr. Choudhury was badly beaten by a mob of 40 or so people. Over the weekend he lodged a formal complaint with the police, who responded by issuing an arrest warrant for him. Now he's on the run, fearing torture or worse if he's taken into custody.
Much of Mr. Choudhury's current predicament can be traced to Ms. Zia's reluctance to cross her Islamist coalition partners, who are keen on the case of the "Zionist spy" and would like nothing more than to see him hang. It doesn't help that a powerless caretaker government will take charge later this month in preparation for next January's elections. The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka has kept track of Mr. Choudhury and plans to send an observer to his trial. But mainly America's diplomats seem to have treated him as a nuisance. "Their thinking," says a source familiar with the case, "is that this is the story of one man, and why should the U.S. base its entire relationship with Bangladesh on this one man?"
Here's an answer: Bangladesh does not mean much strategically to the U.S., except for the fact that it is home to some 120 million Muslims, many of them desperately poor and increasingly under the sway of violent religious notions imported from Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration, which every year spends some $64 million on Bangladesh, has made a priority of identifying moderate Muslims and giving them the space and cover they need to spread their ideas. Mr. Choudhury has identified himself, at huge personal risk, as one such Muslim. Now that he is on the run, somewhere in the darkness of Dhaka, will someone in the administration pick up the phone and explain to the Bangladeshis just what America expects of its "moderate and tolerant" friends?
Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2006
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