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Thursday, December 7, 2006 / 16 Kislev 5767
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(12/08/2006)
Journalist’s Plight Needs Attention
David A. Harris

We are taught in the Talmud that “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Today a life is at risk in a Bangladeshi court. The man’s name is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. He is a journalist and editor of Blitz, an English-language weekly newspaper. He is on trial for sedition, punishable by death in Bangladesh.

His alleged “crime”? In the words of the presiding judge: “By praising the Jews and Christians, by attempting to travel to Israel, and by predicting the so-called rise of Islamist militancy in the country and expressing such through writings inside the country and abroad, you have tried to damage the image and relations of Bangladesh with the outside world.”

In other words, Mr. Choudhury believes in interfaith dialogue and respect, normalized ties between Bangladesh and Israel, and opposition to Islamic radicalism. Those views could cost him his life.

His difficulties began in 2003 when he became interested in Israel and initiated correspondence with a Jerusalem Post editor. That led to an article he wrote for the paper advocating the establishment of peaceful relations between his country and Israel. The piece caught the attention of an Israeli scholar, who invited him to give a lecture in Israel at the International Forum for Literature and Culture of Peace. He accepted, but never made it.

As Mr. Choudhury was about to board a plane in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, for the long, circuitous journey, he was arrested and his passport was confiscated. He was accused of espionage and charged with sedition. He spent the next 17 months in hellish prison conditions, including torture, denial of medical attention and isolation.

He was released in April 2005, largely because of the determined efforts of two individuals—Dr. Richard Benkin, a Jewish community activist from Chicago, and Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk.

But that release was followed by more harassment, threats on his life, attacks on his newspaper’s offices, and the looming trial. When the American Jewish Committee sought to present Mr. Choudhury with its Moral Courage Award in May 2006, Bangladeshi authorities once again prevented him from leaving the country. Instead, he spoke movingly via video hook-up, while Dr. Benkin came to Washington to accept the AJC tribute on behalf of a man he refers to as his brother.

The trial has now begun. The judge in the case is widely known for his link to Islamic radicals. The chances of Mr. Choudhury receiving a fair hearing are slim.

Remarkably, throughout this three-year ordeal, Mr. Choudhury has stood unbowed and unbent. He has faced his accusers with remarkable courage, stoicism and equanimity.

As outside lifelines, Dr. Benkin and Rep. Kirk have remained tenacious, constantly reminding the Bangladeshi government that this case is being monitored carefully and urging others to join with them in defense of Mr. Choudhury.

The State Department, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, PEN USA, some individual Members of Congress and a few newspapers have spoken out. [See Editorial, “Deadly Profession,” Oct. 13] Most recently, Rep. Kirk, a Republican, and Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, introduced a resolution calling on the Bangladeshi government to drop all pending charges against Mr. Choudhury, return his confiscated possessions, stop “harassment and intimidation,” and hold “accountable those responsible for attacks against” him. (To urge Members of Congress to support this initiative, visit www.ajc.org.)

In a world where radical Islam is on the march, threatening moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike, outspoken and fearless individuals like Mr. Choudhury deserve our full support. It is they, after all, who are on the front lines.

The goal should be to send an unmistakable signal to the Bangladeshi government, a recipient of U.S. aid, that the case is being watched and its outcome could affect bilateral ties. Other countries committed to freedom of speech, human dignity and mutual respect should also be heard from—and their diplomats seen in the Bangladeshi courtroom to demonstrate tangible concern. To date, regrettably, too few have been either heard or seen. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is by no means an exclusively American or Jewish issue; rather, it is a matter of fundamental human rights.

The history of the human rights struggle, whether behind the Iron Curtain or in South Africa during the apartheid era, underscores the need to focus the spotlight on offending nations, depict the plight of individuals, and urge democratic countries to include human rights concerns high on their agenda when dealing with the offending nations.

For those concerned about the outcome of the titanic clash in the Muslim world between radicals and moderates, and who wish the latter to know they do not stand alone in their valiant struggle, Mr. Choudhury’s case demands our attention—and now. n

David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

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