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Thursday 16th of August 2007 2 Elul 5767    
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Cotler client faces execution
By DAVID LAZARUS, Staff Reporter   
Thursday, 16 August 2007

Shoaib Choudhury

When you speak to Shoaib Choudhury on the phone, it seems almost unfathomable that this man who is laughing and sounds so relaxed and serene is facing charges that lead to his execution if he is convicted.

The Bangladeshi journalist and editor of the English-language Weekly Blitz has, for almost four years, lived almost every day under a Sword of Damocles for daring to be a pro-Israel Muslim and for crusading against the forces of radical Islam that he says are taking over his beloved country.

At writing, Choudhury was scheduled, after five postponements in less than a year, to go on trial Aug. 17 for sedition, treason and blasphemy, charges all dating back to his attempt to travel to Israel in 2003 to give a speech on interfaith dialogue.

Since then, he has been attacked, beaten, tortured and jailed, and efforts to have the charges against him dropped – including by his international counsel, MP Irwin Cotler – have failed.

Yet, speaking on Aug. 5 to The CJN during a trip to the United States – he was allowed to leave his country for the trip – Choudhury, in contrast to his upbeat manner, also came across as a man of serious and determined conviction and moral courage.

“If I am convicted or I am executed, it will not change our mission,” he said. “I am sure that someone else would take over.”

Choudhury is almost serene in that knowledge and acceptance. His wife, Happy, and two children, daughter Priyanka, 17, and son Hamzalah, 7, he said, support him completely. So, he added, do thousands of fellow Bangladeshis who share his pluralistic sensibilities and are fighting with him for the forces enlightenment to prevail over the tide of radical Islam in his country that is rising despite its origins as a secular parliamentary democracy.

“There’s a large, large number of Bangladeshi people who feel the same as we do,” Choudhury said, “and many of them – or at least some of them – have openly expressed their support for me,” in particular the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association, which is representing him in court.

On the other hand, most top-ranked lawyers in Bangladesh won’t touch his case, “because they think if they support a Muslim Zionist, it will hamper their careers,” he noted. “They don’t like to support me, but I don’t care.”

On the eve of returning to his country, Choudhury was buoyed by his six-day trip to New York, New Jersey and Washington, where he addressed synagogue audiences, visited Capitol Hill, and lunched with the American Jewish Committee, which last year presented Choudhury, at the time in absentia, with its Moral Courage Award.

He also received some excellent news during the trip. Despite Choudhury’s own belief that a diagnosed case of glaucoma was causing impairment of sight in his right eye, a New York doctor told him that he has never had the disease, just the effects of a bad eye infection that was never properly treated and made worse by sleeping on a jail floor under poor conditions.

Throughout the trip, Choudhury was accompanied by Richard Benkin, a Jewish activist who was able to help Choudhury get out of prison on bail in 2005. The two invariably address each other as “my brother” and launched a website together – interfaithstrength.com –  to promote understanding among religions.

Still, they don’t necessarily agree on everything.  Despite his generally optimistic outlook, Choudhury thinks there is only a 50-50 chance that charges against him will be dropped, and it won’t be accomplished so easily, because of the necessity to “appease radical forces.”

Benkin told The CJN that while the fact that Choudhury was allowed out of his country might be taken as a positive sign, “it’s not good policy to wait and hope that things go well.”

Benkin believes the current interim Bangladeshi government “has to see that if the case is not resolved, there could be some real, serious consequences,” particularly with regard to trade benefits.

“There are many possible routes by which these charges can be dropped,” Benkin said, but he quoted Cotler to the effect that you cannot expect Bangladesh to do the “logical” or “right” thing.

“It defies logic that until this point, the sedition charges against him remain,” Benkin said, “while they have been dropped against other journalists. It’s almost four years later, and the government has yet to produce its first shred of credible evidence that there’s anything here to deal with.”

Choudhury has on occasion identified with the notion that he is living out the pages of a Franz Kafka novel. Benkin sometimes calls him “Joseph K,” the protagonist in Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial.

Then there’s what Choudhury considers the completely laughable notion that he has been a Mossad spy – “I mean, it’s too funny!” – or that he is “blasphemous” in his acceptance of other religions.

Choudhury said he inherited his tolerant, open nature from his father, who received a master’s degree in India and instilled in his family the principle “never to hate any particular religion.”

Choudhury first met Jews when he was starting out as a journalist, “and they were many of my colleagues. They were wonderful.”

It is incomprehensible to him why his country has not yet recognized Israel, a nation that was among the first to recognize Bangladeshi independence in 1971. Choudhury has referred to himself proudly as a “Muslim Zionist” and said that “as a Bangladeshi, I feel personally obligated towards Israel.”

Choudhury is grateful for the support he has received from the West, most notably in the form of strong resolutions by the U.S. Congress and the European Union. He is also grateful for Cotler’s efforts and for representations made by the Canadian government on his behalf and by other canadians, including a letter in May sent by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression to Bangladesh’s high commissioner in Ottawa.

Whatever support he may have, however, Choudhury is facing a real threat if charges against him are not dropped. Yet, as Benkin said, Choudhury “would not entertain any notion of not going back,” despite several offers of political asylum.

“He would never even consider it,” Benkin said.

 



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