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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury: on trial for sedition, treason, and blasphemy
Threats against Muslim Hero all too CommonBy Dr. Richard Benkin Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Picture the following scenario. You live in a country that long ago declared itself a “people’s republic” with Islam as its official religion. Although you are a Muslim, you have openly declared yourself to be a “Muslim Zionist” and are known for advocating relations with Israel and other positions that are very unpopular with the Islamic radicals who have accrued considerable power in your country.
For your stance, you have been persecuted, jailed and tortured, your family harassed and your brother beaten, your place of business first bombed and later taken over by a mob that was allowed to do so with impunity.
Earlier this year, a group known for its human rights violations took you into its custody and it required nothing short of an international outcry to force them to release you. Now, you find yourself on trial for “sedition, treason, and blasphemy” and could receive the death penalty (or more likely a very long prison term) if convicted.
Welcome to the world of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. The Bangladeshi journalist has garnered the support of people and governments around the world in the years following his 2003 arrest. He and I had been working together for some time in an effort to provide Bangladeshis with unbiased news about Israel, the United States, and the Jewish people. We even saw signs that we were beginning to succeed.
We did not know, however, that radicals had him under surveillance and were preparing to force his arrest ever since he begin publishing articles that exposed their growing power and use of madrassas [Muslim religious schools] to teach young Bangladeshis jihad. At first, no one was interested in the fate of this one man, but as more and more people became aware of what he stood for and what was happening to him, that changed. The previous Bangladeshi government that took these actions did so, according to several of their officials, to appease the Islamist radicals in their coalition. They also counted on the world being indifferent to their actions. They miscalculated about that, but continued to tell us that they knew the charges were baseless but were “afraid of how the radicals will react” if they drop them. In a 2005 meeting that eventually led to Choudhury’s freedom, then Bangladesh Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury told US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and me that the case was “a purely personal financial dispute, nothing more.”
Choudhury’s trial on those charges began this month and while it is far too early to draw any firm conclusions, its first days have been marked by a level of judicial fairness that was unknown under the previous government. (On January 11, 2007, a bloodless coup brought a new “caretaker” government to power with the military’s backing.) But at approximately 10am on August 7, while Choudhury was in court for the trial’s second day, his household staff saw someone speed up to his home on a motorbike and start taking videos of the house. When they confronted him, the man identified himself only as “Sohel” and claimed to be a journalist from Daily Manabzamin, a Bangla-language newspaper edited by Voice of America correspondent Mathiur Rahman Chowdhury. He handed them a slip of paper with a cell phone number for Shoaib to call, continued filming, and left.
Unfortunately, this was far and away not the first incident of suspicious activity at Choudhury’s home or business. The pro-US, pro-Israel Muslim receives threats regularly—some credible, others not. There was one 2006 incident in which he called me to report that the Islamist group Khatmey Nabuat Movement (KTM) threatened him with “dire consequences” after we had written articles critical of it and thwarted its attempted attack on a minority Muslim sect, the Ahmadiyyas. Islamists hate the Ahmadiyyas for believing in Jesus’s virgin birth and that Mohammed was not “the final prophet.” The Pakistani government has declared them to be non-Muslims and Islamists were trying to do the same in Bangladesh. In response to KTM’s threatened “dire consequences,” Choudhury gathered dozens of supporters, representing every religious group in Bangladesh, who stayed with him throughout the night in case the Islamists tried to carry out their threat. In a more recent and even more harrowing incident, Choudhury was abducted by the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a government paramilitary group whose captives often “disappear.” We responded more directly to that immediate danger and helped force his release after a few hours.
Choudhury is almost stoic at times. “You get used to it,” he said. But not complacent. When his younger brother, Sohail Choudhury, called him to report the “Sohel” incident, the senior Choudhury sent text messages to the police and members of the government; and to the Daily Manabzamin. He also called his own newspaper, Weekly Blitz, and asked one his staff, Rana Masud, to get to the bottom of the matter since Masud’s brother is a senior journalist with Manabzamin. That newspaper confirmed that it employs no one named Sohel and in any event did not send anyone to the Choudhury home.
Masud then called the phone number that Sohel left, and the latter admitted that he lied when he said he worked for Manabzamin. He said that he actually worked but for Daily Aparashkantha, “an underground newspaper known for blackmailing people,” according to Choudhury. Masud asked , “Why did you go to Choudhury’s residence? Why did you take video footage?”
Sohel: “Ask Choudhury to call Aparadhkantha editor Rashedul Hassan. Choudhury owes 100,000 Taka [roughly $1,500 US] to Rashed.”
Masud: “100,000 Taka? No it is false. Rashed came to our office in April and asked for TK. 1 million as ‘loan.’ But Mr. Choudhury declined to give such loan. Why you are trying to put false pressure to extract money from us?”
Sohel: “Ask Choudhury to call Rashed and settle the matter.”
Roughly translated as “Crime Voice,” Aparashkantha had been running screaming front page headlines about Shoaib’s trial since its start the day before. The headlined and accompanying articles were sensationalistic and urged that “the Zionist spy” be convicted of sedition, treason, and blasphemy. The paper was now demanding that Choudhury provide a payoff of 100,000 Bangladeshi Taka, roughly $1500 in US currency to Rashed.
Choudhury has filed a formal complaint about the incident with the Dhaka police, but so far has received no response. Aparashkantha is rumored to have ties with both organized crime and the government’s paramilitary group, Rapid Action Battalion. When I spoke with representatives of the Bangladeshi government, who wish to remain anonymous, they reminded me that this is essentially a criminal matter (unless Choudhury also wants to press a civil suit) and not the province of the central government. They did assure me, however, that they would look into the matter nonetheless.
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Dr. Richard L. Benkin secured the release of Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury in 2005. The two continue working together to fight Islamist radicals and their allies in South Asia and elsewhere. For more information on how to help, please contact Dr. Benkin at email@example.com. Their web site is [url=http://www.InterfaithStrength.com]http://www.InterfaithStrength.com[/url].
Dr. Benkin can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org