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Judge appeases radicals

Judge appeases radicals

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA

I was awakened by a phone call in the middle of the Chicago night last week.  It was Weekly Blitz Executive Editor Sohail Choudhury.  He told me that Metropolitan Session judge Azizul Haque had just revoked bail for Blitz editor and publisher Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.  At first, I assumed the time of night was playing tricks with my ears.  What the judge did was a blatant violation of Bangladeshi law since Shoaib is appealing the case before the Supreme Court (Appellate Division).  This is not the first time this happened, however.  In fact, it is the fourth attempt to re-incarcerate the journalist since we secured his release in 2005.  Each time, we successfully stopped Islamist revenge against Shoaib, but each time it underscored the precarious nature of a free press in Bangladesh.

It is no coincidence that the government took this action on the heels of Shoaib’s successful US and European trip.  In Washington, he testified before the House Human Rights Caucus and spoke to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.  He was greeted as a hero in several major US cities where he spoke about his people and about their struggle against extremism.  Almost immediately, he traveled to Monaco where HRH Prince Albert himself presented him with the first Monaco Media Forum Award.  The Prince and others pledged their support for obtaining justice for Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.  The ineffectual actions by the Judge and Public Prosecutor (who recommended the bail revocation) seem but a last gasp of small people against an international tide condemning this scurrilous prosecution.  Continuing it will only strengthen those who oppose it.  The message from the court:  while human rights are a concern everywhere else, they have no place in a Bangladeshi courtroom.

Shoaib still faces capital charges of sedition, treason, and blasphemy for championing interfaith dialogue and Bangladesh-Israel relations.  This is despite the fact that the Bangladeshi government promised the American government on several occasions that the charges would be dropped.  Successive officials have admitted that the charges are baseless.  “A purely personal financial dispute,” said one.  “I researched the case and found no evidence to support it except that it seems some powerful people don’t like [Shoaib],” another told me.  Several others have said that the government is afraid to drop the false charges because they need to appease radical Islamists in the country.  Thus, the charges stand as a constant reminder to countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and others that despite its attempts to say otherwise, Bangladesh is not an ally in the fight against extremism.

How real is that?  Consider that way back in February a bill was introduced in the US Senate that would provide Bangladesh with tariff relief so it can maintain its level of imports to the United States, which purchased around 70 percent of all Bangladeshi imports.  I led the opposition to the bill, based solely on Shoaib’s false prosecution.  The BGMEA sent no less a light than Mohammed Yunus, who spoke passionately to the Senate for the bill’s passage.  But the bill languishes in committee with no date even for discussion, let alone a vote.  It has failed to collect any additional co-sponsors (a most telling sign that the bill is dead), and we have contacted two of the four Senators who did co-sponsor it and have since expressed their reservations about the bill.

Judge Haque’s actions are tired and pedestrian, and they only embolden Shoaib’s supporters to launch a new offensive to force the Bangladesh government to keep its promises and come down on the side of justice.  In 2005, I participated in a meeting with US Congressman Mark Kirk and then Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury.  Kirk had called the Washington meeting so we could demand Shoaib’s release from 17 months of prison and torture (confirmed to me earlier this year by a former prison guard).  The meeting was long and often difficult, but eventually the Ambassador said they would release Shoaib—on bail.  “Not good enough,” I said, reminding him that tyrants had long used the ploy of releasing dissidents to appear free while maintaining the charges in an attempt to censor them.  Although Shamsher promised that the charges would be dropped, the government still has not done so.  The Public Prosecutor can tell the court that there is insufficient evidence for the government to proceed, something numerous government officials have admitted.  Not only has that not been done, but it was Public Prosecutor Ehsanul Haque Shomaji who suggested canceling Shoaib’s bail—all at a continued and unnecessary cost to the Bangladeshi people.

The recent court activity further undermined Bangladeshi credibility in Washington.  For some months, the government’s mantra has been that it cannot and should not do anything about the case because “it is in the hands of the court.”  As I wrote recently, that statement rings hollow since there has been precious little that is judicial in the government’s handling of this matter; and last week’s courtroom antics re-emphasized my 2005 concerns.  Shoaib’s supporters are considering further action to prevent more abuses.  With the US Congress about to take Bangladesh’s appropriations to a Conference Committee, there is a great deal of sentiment to make them contingent on the government dropping the false charges as it has promised time and again.  There is also a growing movement to urge American buyers to stop purchasing Bangladeshi garments until the charges are dropped and radical appeasement ends.

When will the government of Bangladesh finally let the world know that it does not stand with countries like Iran and Syria, but instead with those nations that aid its people and purchase its goods?  Time is running out for a decision.

Posted on 22 Nov 2007 by Root


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