Dr. Richard Benkin Bio
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
More Shenanigans in BangladeshBy Dr. Richard Benkin Monday, February 4, 2008
“There they go again.”
The late US President Ronald Reagan used that phrase a lot. He said those words in good humored frustration when his political opponents (usually Congressional Democrats) would persist with the same policies that failed Americans time and again.
Most often, he was reacting to their proposals that sought to solve problems by increasing taxes and the role of the federal government; although it often was their opposition to his aggressive foreign policy. More than anything else, the 40th President simply could not understand how these holders of the public trust could make the same mistakes over and over again.
Well, “there they go again”; but “they” are not tax-and-spend legislators; people with whom we might disagree—even vehemently—but not our enemies. “They” are the Islamist tormentors of heroic Bangladeshi journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, whose struggle has been championed by the Canada Free Press. Since we secured Shoaib’s release in 2005—after seventeen months of torture and imprisonment—we have been engaged in a dialogue and game of teeter-totter with the various Bangladeshi governments that have been in power during that time.
When then-Bangladeshi Ambassador to Washington Shamsher M. Chowdhury agreed to Shoaib’s release, he also promised (at the insistence of US Congressman Mark Kirk [R-IL] and me) that the government would drop all charges against the self described “Muslim Zionist.” We agreed to the promise, but Kirk also let Shamsher know that his government’s Holy Grail—a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States—would never happen as long as the charges stood. Since that day, we have been subjected to more promises, some sincere efforts on their part, but a string of broken promises and successive disappointments. We already have had to stop four attempts to re-incarcerate Shoaib. Almost three years since the promise was made, Shoaib still faces capital charges of sedition, treason, and blasphemy for his advocacy of relations with Israel, interfaith dialogue based on mutual respect and religious equality, and his exposure of and opposition to the radical Islamists who have wormed their way into almost every Bangladeshi institution. They were even part of Bangladesh’s coalition government and would have realized more gains were they not stopped by a military coup last January.
And that last item is the key.
During a 2005 meeting in New York Lutfuzzamen Babar, Home Minister of the previous Bangladeshi government tried to explain why other diplomats present should not be concerned that his Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had Islamist parties in its coalition and even its cabinet. Babar told us that this allowed the BNP to keep the Islamists under control. “If we did not let them in, where would they go except the streets,” he said. Then and in subsequent conversations, Babar was trying to make the point that the BNP had the upper hand in its relationship with the Islamists. But if Babar was not being disingenuous, he certainly misread the situation.
I believe it is the latter, and here is why. The United States imports roughly 70 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports, and is therefore critical to its economy. In 2006, the lack of progress on the FTA, as well as ongoing signs that importers might be getting nervous about Bangladeshi goods—and all largely due to Shoaib’s persecution—threatened millions of Bangladeshis. At the same time, BNP officials continually were telling us how they had to be careful not to offend the Islamists both inside and out of their coalition. (That’s right. They even admitted appeasement was their official policy.) Thus, they hit on a back door way to salvage their economy (i.e., trade with the US) and political power (i.e., sufferance of the Islamists). They told us that there was an item in the Bangladeshi law that said if the government brought the defendant to court three successive times without calling any witnesses, the case would have to be dropped. And so that is what they did. The first hearing went as planned; so did the second. After that one, the government’s own public prosecutor congratulated Shoaib’s pending victory. But when the third and final hearing arrived, the judge (known as an Islamist) made sure that he already had a few witnesses lined up to thwart the government’s effort. When Babar learned about it, he was furious. Ambassador Chowdhury phoned him for direction on how to respond to an angry Congressman Kirk and others. Babar told him to stonewall them, just tell them anything. Babar called Shoaib on the carpet and verbally abused him over the Americans’ angry response. I said that Babar was not angry at Shoaib but angry at the realization that his party no longer controlled the Islamists. And in fact, we have had a few subsequent actions by Islamists that undermined government attempts to end the matter quietly.
When you lie down with dogs, however, you really do get up with fleas. As recently as this past November, the trial judge attempted to revoke Shoaib’s bail and return him to prison. He did this even though he knew it was contrary to Bangladeshi law since the matter is before the Supreme Court. We were able to stop the attempt and a repeat performance the following month by arranging to have international observers in the court from the United States, European Union, and the UK. But, as Ronald Reagan might have said, “There they go again.”
According to an observer from the US embassy, the January hearing “lasted all of five minutes.” The matter of bail did not come up in the court. At the very end of the session, however, the presiding judge said that Shoaib’s trial would begin on the next court date, February 17. Shoaib himself has insisted that this is the intent and that his local attorney, S N Goswami of the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association is “doing everything he can” to prevent it. Shoaib’s insistence should be taken seriously because as a journalist, he has various sources that feed him information like this. I also informed Shoaib’s international human rights attorney, former Canadian Law Minister Dr. Irwin Cotler.
The fact is that with the matter before the Supreme Court, the judge’s actions are illegal. But legality and judicial ethics have played almost no part in Shoaib’s persecution. Yet, the Islamists persist with these harassing tactics—even though they continue to harm the Bangladeshi people by reducing the likelihood that the US will continue to import their goods at the same rate they have. Already, they have taken the FTA off the table and are holding up even a consolation prize bill in the Senate that could give Bangladesh some tariff relief.
Shoaib’s supporters are hoping that international outrage will stop the Islamists as before. Again, we are trying to arrange international observers for the February 17 court date. We also hope that protests to the Bangladeshi Supreme Court and Law Advisor will help. Last month, the previous Law Advisor who was actively harassing Shoaib, was sacked which hopefully promises an adherence to law and justice.