Bangladesh at a Crossroads
Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA
The trials and travails of Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury are into the second half of their fourth year. During that time, his case has become the metaphor for how Bangladesh chooses its international role. At first, few people outside of Bangladesh seemed to know or really care, which paralleled the way the world, saw the nation. Soon,
as more people learned about the case, it seemed to confirm charges
that various minorities and human rights advocates had been issuing for
some time; namely, that the country had long used the judiciary as a
tool to silence people with unpopular views, that its record of
harassing journalists was one of the worst in the world, and that many
official actions were taken in craven appeasement to radical Islamists
in the government coalition. That Shoaib was immediately accused of spying for Israel (and that I was his Mossad contact) placed Bangladesh in a category of nations that used such transparently false allegations as an assumed sure thing to vilify dissidents.
These actions also doomed the Bangladesh government’s stillborn attempt to paint itself as an ally in the war on terror and a “moderate Muslim nation.” Every
time the government thought it had taken one step forward in this
regard—in particular with US lawmakers—its medieval actions in this
case would take it no less than two steps back. There was a period when things appeared to be getting better. Although not entirely out of the goodness of its heart, the BNP released Shoaib from prison. It
admitted to several individuals, including more than one US official;
that there was no substance to the charges and that they promised to
drop them. The various whispered methods by
which the government promised to maneuver the charges away without
“angering the radicals” would have been comic, were they not tragic
both for Shoaib and the country. For at the time, the Bangladesh government was trying to get a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, something that would mean millions of jobs and billions of dollars to the people of Bangladesh. But
with every Byzantine turn at which the government proceeded with a case
it had itself labeled as baseless, it reinforced a notion that the then
government of Bangladesh was hopelessly dependent on the goodwill of the country’s Islamist radicals.
Such a turn of events made it impossible for the US to award Bangladesh the status of a favored trading partner. And
this perception was growing, as the European Parliament and Australian
Senate, as well as the US Congress, passed resolutions demanding that
these false charges be dropped.
Then came the events of January 11, 2007. Most
of the world—including from what I observed most of Bangladesh—greeted
the new leaders in Dhaka with a sense of hope; hope that they had the
strength to make a clean break from Bangladesh’s tragic past; a break
from a culture of corruption so vast that there was joy in Dhaka when
Bangladesh was named only the world’s third most corrupt country; a
break from radical bombings and political assassinations; a break from
a post-nuclear political landscape in which the two major parties would
rather see the nation fail than see the other succeed. It was also becoming clear to various experts in a number of capitals that Bangladesh
was more and more beholden to radical Islamists; and it was becoming
clear to some that the ultimate destination of that slide was a Bangladesh that resembled Islamist-torn Somalia or Taliban Afghanistan, with the same tragic results for its population.
The new government, however, appears to have a rather clear perception of what is best for the nation. It
has begun positively with an unflinching effort to eradicate corruption
and punish those who have been plundering the nation for decades. It also has announced an anti-radical agenda and carried out the execution of three convicted Islamists. All of that is to its credit, but there are many people in Washington
(where a trade bill is being considered) and elsewhere who see
government action in the Choudhury case as the litmus test for a new Bangladesh. Once again, US
lawmakers have been assured that there is process by which the charges
will be dropped, but results have been mixed thus far, and prior
experience makes each seeming setback an affirmation that this
government might not be all that different than the last one.
People are losing their patience. Certain undeniable facts have been established and admitted by all parties. One, there is no basis for the charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. In
three and a half years, the government has not produced one shred of
credible evidence in support of them and still cites as evidence an
article that was never written. Even quotes
from the radical judge in the case places those who support the case
against Shoaib squarely in the camp of a Bin Laden and an Ahmedinejad: “By praising Christians and Jews, [he] has hurt the sentiments of Muslims.” Is that the face that Bangladesh wants to present to the world—at the same time as it asks us to purchase its garments or give it aid? Even the noted international human rights attorney, Professor Irwin Cotler of Canada
whose clients have included Nelson Mandela and Andrei Sakharov, has
identified at least eight violations of Bangladeshi law in the
prosecution. Does Bangladesh wish to be seen in the same light as Apartheid South Africa and Soviet Russia? I know the people of Bangladesh (and some of its leaders), and I know the answer to that question is a resounding “No!” But that is what the government is risking with each and every delay.
are at least two ways in which the case can be dropped under the law,
despite the fact that the presiding judge has decided to ignore the law. The
first is that the Supreme Court can consider all that has passed thus
far, dispassionately and away from the shrill cries of the Islamists;
and it can throw out this admittedly baseless case that is keeping food
from the mouths of Bangladeshis. The second is that the government can simply stop prosecuting what it knows to be a politically motivated and false charge. The Law Ministry has that power, but it is not exercising it.
Please, government of Bangladesh, it is time to come to your senses and stop hurting your people by pursing a case that the entire world has condemned. In
fact, you can do your country an enormous favor by on your own
initiative dropping the colonial-era charges of sedition against other
journalists and dissidents. That surely will remove Bangladesh from the handful of dictatorial nations that maintain that practice.
And please, time is running out. Already, The New York Times has called this government a military dictatorship. And
although that charge is inaccurate and ignorant, it is the sort of
thing that will grow if not put to rest by action—such as an end to the
charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury and an end to the use of
the sedition charge to silence those who take unpopular positions. Jobs and money hang in the balance, but more importantly, the integrity of the nation of Bangladesh.Those of us who know the people of Bangladesh are waiting expectantly for the government to take the courageous action that has been a long time in coming. With which international camp will it choose to align itself?