A Banner Week in the Fight For Justice in Bangladesh

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin - Correspondent, "Asian Tribune"

The week of November 13, 2006, might prove a watershed in the battle to secure freedom and justice for Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, Bangladeshi journalist. Choudhury has been under attack by his government for publishing articles that warned his country about the growth of radical Islamists there, urged Bangladesh to recognize Israel, and advocated genuine interfaith dialogue based on religious equality and mutual respect. For these "crimes," he was arrested and tortured and his family harassed.

When his younger brother, Sohail Choudhury, went to the police to complain that he was beaten, they responded that it was the Choudhurys’ fault for their "alliance with the Jews." Even after we were successful in getting him released from prison, Choudhury faced continued harassment from the Bangladeshi government and Islamist radicals.

The government "discouraged" advertisement in Choudhury’s paper, Weekly Blitz; it refused to let him travel and for a while held his passport. Thugs—including members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—beat and threatened him while police aware of the attacks, did nothing. In fact, after one beating, the police went after Choudhury and let the attackers occupy his newspaper office.

Then on September 18, 2006, a judge with Islamist connections ruled that Choudhury would stand trial for "Sedition, Treason, and Blasphemy." "By praising Christianity and Judaism," the judge and prosecutor said, Choudhury "hurt Islam…and by [calling for] relations between Bangladesh and Israel [he] offended the sentiments of Muslims." For this Choudhury could lose his life. But as noted above, the fight to save him—and by extension the millions of other moderate Muslims in the Muslim world and religious minorities and dissidents in Bangladesh—took a giant step forward; propelled by activity in four different places around the world.

Monday, November 13, Bangladesh: By previous court order, the government was to begin presenting witnesses against Choudhury. In a surprise move, however, and contrary to Bangladeshi law, the government instead conducted a reprise of the "framing of the charge," and asked Choudhury to declare his guilt or innocence. After he pled "Not Guilty" and attacked the legality of the proceedings, the court set the next date as January 22, 2007—a move intended to avoid taking any action under the tenure of the current government; but a move that also gave world opinion time to work.

Tuesday, November 14, Washington, DC: Representative Mark Kirk—Choudhury’s long time defender in the US Congress—introduced a Congressional Resolution on behalf of himself and Representative Nita Lowey calling on the Bangladesh government to drop all charges against Choudhury and cease other forms of harassment against him. It also placed in the record, the US Congress’s recognition that the government of Bangladesh regularly oppresses journalists and others contrary to all standards of human rights.

Such resolutions express serious Congressional sentiment and can serve as a basis for more concrete action if ignored; for instance, action regarding Bangladesh’s $63 million in annual US aid. It also could be a clear signal to Americans that by purchasing Bangladeshi garments, they are supporting a repressive and Islamist regime. The Resolution, which is expected to pass by early December, indicates a level of frustration with the Bangladeshi government’s record of injustice and deliberate appeasement of Islamist radicals. It puts to rest attempts by the BNP government to convince US lawmakers that Bangladesh is fighting Islamist radicals.

Wednesday, November 15, Canada and Australia: After an article in one of Australia’s largest dailies, as well as articles and radio shows about Choudhury in Canada, Members of Parliament and other officials from both countries began expressing concern over the Bangladeshi government’s action in the Choudhury case.

On that same day, this writer received a call from internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer and former Canadia Attorney General, Professor Irwin Cotler. His Chief of Staff said that Cotler had become extremely concerned about Choudhury’s mistreatment and wanted to help with his defense. In the past, Cotler has defended such individuals as South African President Nelson Mandela, former Soviet dissident and now Israeli Minister Natan Sharansky, Egyptian democracy advocate Saad Ibrahim, and others.

Thursday, November 16, Bangladesh: A few weeks ago, the police protection provided Choudhury since his newspaper was bombed and he was threatened suddenly evaporated. On Thursday, it just as suddenly re-appeared at his home. On that same day, Choudhury’s attorney S. N. Goswami, Secretary General of the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association, appeared before the Bangladeshi High Court to plead his Motion for Quashment, which challenges the legality of the case against his client. Previously, under the auspices of an openly hostile judge, the High Court had indicated that it would not view positively any motion brought on Choudhury’s behalf because of his unpopular positions. But Goswami found a different judge presiding who did entertain the motion and even indicated that the court would require the judge in the case to produce certain pieces of alleged evidence (which in reality do not exist).

Thursday, November 16, France, Europe: The European Parliament passed three resolutions expressing concern about human rights in Ethiopia, Iran, and Bangladesh. Point seven of the resolution on Bangladesh "Calls for…the acquittal, of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, the charging of whom runs counter to all the standards of international law and the conventions against violations of press freedom."

In keeping with the methodology employed by most advocates of tyranny, those in Bangladesh had hoped to persecute Choudhury in the dark; and for a time, it appeared they might succeed. But after continuous efforts, the matter has now become an international cause celebre. Similarly, Islamists had been building and buying infrastructure in Bangladesh for decades in pursuit of a Taliban state there. They had even wormed their way into the governing coalition and established themselves among the police. In 2003, Choudhury made that effort public, incurring the eternal wrath of Islamists who wished to keep it from the world until it was a fait accompli. More recently, according to several reports, foreign Islamists have begun moving into place readying for a takeover.

Dr. Richard L. Benkin: Correspondent, Asian Tribune and also Special Advisor to The Intelligence Summit on Bangladeshi Affairs.

- Asian Tribune -