Date : 29/04/2006 , Sat
A Newspaper Published by World Institute for Asian Studies.
Vol. 06 No. 06   

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Date : 2006-04-28
Anniversary of Shoaib's Release Mixes Joy, Disappointment
By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

April 30, 2005, was the seventh day of Passover on the Jewish calendar, a day according to tradition when G-d performed a great miracle. With the breath of His Nostrils, He split the Sea of Reeds so His people, the Jewish people, could walk to freedom. Thirty-five centuries later, G-d again performed a miracle that allowed Weekly Blitz editor and publisher Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury to walk out of a Dhaka prison and into the light of freedom. For the many people around the world who had been following the case, Shoaib’s release brought a surge of joy and positive expectations. This week will mark a year since that day, a year that has seen many of those expectations dashed, not only to the detriment of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury and his friends, but also for Bangladesh.

Shortly after the release, I was asked to contact an editor at one of the top five US newspapers and write an Op-Ed piece about the event. The piece I submitted, "Is Journalist’s Release Sign of Dhaka Spring," sought to portray it as the positive sign we expected it was. But the editor rejected it, saying, "I don’t think the Bangladesh government ought to be rewarded for correcting its own injustice." The paper wanted something that told the "real story": Bangladesh’s repression of journalists and how Shoaib’s release was an aberration forced upon them. I said that I could not write that because while Bangladesh certainly has problems, the "real story" was how it was trying to come to grips with them within the context of its social and political cultures; and that there was a desire on their part to do so. We spoke further but never came to terms.

The incident illustrates the tremendous obstacles Bangladesh faces in the US and other Western communities, some of the real problems it has to fix, but also the potential for rehabilitating that image made possible by Shoaib’s release. There seemed to be some reason for optimism as well. Four and a half months after his release, Shoaib began publishing Weekly Blitz again. Readership continued to grow, and he started other organs. Blitz also began getting more and more attention internationally, and its articles are being read in a number of influential places.

More importantly, perhaps, all this was happening while Shoaib and his colleagues continued to provide the sort of news and commentary that he vowed to bring to the people of Bangladesh. Shoaib continued to publish material about Israel and the Jewish people that went against the grain of "political correctness" in Bangladesh. He continued to stand as a champion for interfaith understanding and religious equality. There is harassment, however; occasional threatening phone calls, continued "suggestions" that Blitz would receive additional benefits if someone else were to be the editor and publisher; and it is still difficult for Blitz to receive advertising revenue because of outside intervention. But he is doing his work, holding to his principles and journalistic integrity; and he remains free.

In November 2005, PEN USA honored Shoaib with its "Freedom to Write" Award. PEN USA is part of an international network of prestigious organizations that recognizes writers and defends journalists and other writers who are persecuted worldwide.

On May 4, 2006, Shoaib will receive an even more prestigious honor when the American Jewish

Committee (AJC) presents him with their "Moral Courage Award." The AJC is one of the most formidable civic groups in the United States, and Shoaib will be only the third recipient of this award—the other two, notably, like Shoaib are Muslims.

Some of the people who will be there for the award are US President George W. Bush, US Secretary General Kofi Annan, heads of state from Germany, Israel, Australia, India, and elsewhere; and a large number of US lawmakers and other dignitaries. But like those who came to the PEN USA ceremony, all of them will be disappointed that Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury will not be attending. They will learn that despite repeated assurances to the contrary, the government of Bangladesh is refusing to let him leave the country—that it considers the man they all came to honor as a criminal and refuse him his basic right to travel freely.

Throughout 2004, it was becoming clear to many in the international community that the charge of sedition against Shoaib was baseless and that he continued imprisonment was a blot on the name of Bangladesh. Admittedly, there were many who stated openly that the injustice did not surprise them given Bangladesh’s history of repression journalists. But the position I maintained was that Shoaib’s imprisonment and mistreatment was indeed an injustice we had to fight without rest; that is was wrong. The physical abuse he suffered was wrong; as were the attacks on his family and—worse—the refusal of the police to do anything about it. By the same token, the Bangladeshi people have a history of a more moderate Islam, not the radical Islam that a small band of terror-supporting radicals were trying to foist on the country. It may be a struggling democracy, but a democracy it is. Shoaib’s release—the government’s rectifying the injustice—would be seen as a sign that it was struggling with this human rights issue, as well.

I challenged the government to produce even one scintilla of evidence that Shoaib was guilty of sedition. Not surprisingly, they could not—and they still have not done so because there is no substance to the charge. Multiple Bangladesh officials admitted that there was nothing to support the charge. When pressed, one said to me that in anticipation of our (2004) meeting, he researched the case and spoke with many people in Dhaka. In the end, he said, all he could find was "a lot of people don’t like him [Shoaib]." Another official told me he thought the entire matter was the result of a “personal financial dispute” between Shoaib and another individual.

In April 2005, US Congressman Mark Kirk and I met with Bangladesh Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury in Kirk’s Washington office. During our meeting, assured us that Shoaib’s release on bail was but the first step. Given the lack of evidence, the inability of the government to bring a case, the charges ultimately would be dropped, and both Shoaib’s passport and seized possessions would be returned. Subsequently, more than one other Bangladesh official has provided the US Congress and me with the same assurances.

But none of it has happened. Recently, the government informed Shoaib that they intended to try him for sedition despite the lack of evidence. Several US Congressmen—Bangladesh’s strongest allies in that body—send Chowdhury a very strongly-worded letter reminding him of the government’s previous assurances and warning of "intense international scrutiny" should they go through with it. Since then, Shoaib has been ordered to appear in court several times, only to have the matter continued—for as we know, there is no legitimate evidence on which to proceed. During this time, however, the High Court did rule that Shoaib’s passport was to be returned, which enable him to attend the AJC ceremony. But the government has yet to obey the High Court’s order and return his passport.

Several US officials, as well as much in the international community can but wonder at the government’s motivations: the empty promises, the admitted lack of evidence, and so forth. While it is difficult to fathom rational motivations for this self-destructive action, one item continues to surface in various investigations of the matter. Who is that individual with the "personal financial dispute?" Several people have attributed much of what the government is doing to the influence of that individual. It seems that one person is manipulating the government of Bangladesh into international embarrassment. He is harming Bangladesh-US relations and by doing so depriving Bangladeshis of the economic and other benefits that accrue to positive relations. And why is the government allowing him to do so?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writer of this article is an Analyst; Gallagher Bassett Services, Itasca, IL, US Correspondent; Weekly Blitz, Dhaka, Bangladesh and a Freelance Writer. He submitted this article for publication in the Asian Tribune. - Asian Tribune -

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