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'Brothers' Share Intense Passion for Justice

August 23, 2007 - Bryan Schwartzman, Staff Writer

Shoaib Choudhury
As he ate a continental breakfast at a hotel on City Avenue, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury sounded a deep laugh, one distinctly tinged with bitterness, when asked if his home nation of Bangladesh has anything resembling American "double jeopardy" laws. Choudhury -- who several weeks ago made his first visit to the United States, including a stop in Philadelphia -- is a Muslim newspaper editor and publisher facing sedition and treason charges, along with a possible death sentence, at the hands of the Bangladeshi government. The charges stem from, of all things, his attempt to visit Israel.

He spent 17 months in prison before being released on bail and somehow he was permitted to leave Bangladesh to travel to the United States, despite the pending charges.

His American host was Richard Benkin, a 55-year-old Jewish activist who was first contacted by Choudhury via e-mail four years ago and has now become a champion of the Bangladeshi and his cause of promoting dialogue and understanding between Islam and the West.

The two stopped in several cities during late July, including Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, meeting with supporters, elected officials and journalists, trying to increase awareness and support for Choudhury's plight.

"We call each other brothers because, in every way, other than the fact that we were not born to the same parents, we are brothers. If one's brother is in trouble, one doesn't wonder whether or not they should do something," said Benkin.

Shoab Choudhury (left) and Richard Benkin meet with Rep. Allyson Schwartz in her Washington, D.C. office.

The activist -- who grew up in Oxford Circle but has lived outside Chicago for 25 years -- sent money to assist Choudhury's wife and children while he was imprisoned and enlisted the aid of U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to help secure Choudhury's release. The American, who is married with a college-aged daughter, also traveled to South Asia to meet the embattled journalist and has pledged to fight until his friend's name is cleared.

And Choudhury, who is also married, with two children, said he's turned down asylum offers for himself and his family from numerous countries, choosing to see his trial through to the end.

"It doesn't matter whether I put myself in trouble or my family in trouble, it is my human obligation," said Choudhury.

It's not clear why the 42-year-old editor and publisher was allowed to leave Bangladesh -- a nation of 147 million people nestled between India and Myanmar -- while awaiting trial.

In fact, his latest court appearance was on Aug. 19, nearly four years after he was first arrested.

Before 2003, few had heard of Choudhury outside of Bangladesh. For several years, he'd published a Bengla-language entertainment magazine, but four years ago, Choudhury -- who holds a journalism degree from the London School of Economics and spent seven years as a reporter for the Russian Itar-Tass News Agency, mostly in Bangladesh -- became overtly political and started a weekly English language publication, Blitz.

Benkin, who is trying to drum up international support for Choudhury, is shown in Bangladesh with Choudhury's son, Hanzalah.

Growing Influence of Radicals

In its pages, Choudhury railed against Islamic radicals, who he claimed were receiving Saudi backing and exerting a growing influence over the ruling governing coalition and society at large. He also argued that Bangladesh should recognize Israel and open diplomatic relations.

"Jews are not the enemies. They are our cousins and brothers. We are all the children of Abraham. If someone will kill your cousin or repress your cousin, are you going to be silent?" asked Choudhury. "My basic point is that Israel was among the first four countries to recognize Bangladesh in 1971 [after it broke with Pakistan]. Our so-called Muslim brethren recognized our independence only after four years."

Seeking more information about Israel, Choudhury contacted pro-Israel activists around the world, including Benkin, who eventually published columns, in English, in Bangladeshi media outlets.

Then, in November 2003, Choudhury attempted to attend a Hebrew writer's conference in Israel. Bangladeshis are forbidden from visiting Israel. According to Choudhury, he was arrested at the airport and ultimately jailed for 17 months. He said he was kept mostly in solitary confinement, beaten and denied medical attention. An infection that went untreated led to the loss of sight in one eye, he said.

Shortly after his arrest, The New York Times published an editorial in his defense. Both the American Jewish Committee and the Committee to Protect Journalists -- which considers Bangladesh one of the world's five most dangerous countries for reporters -- have also taken up his case.

In 2006, AJC gave Choudhury its Moral Courage Award; Benkin accepted it in his place.

Blitz was not published while Choudhury was in prison, but in 2005, production resumed after he was released on bail, although he claims that his reporters and family have been harassed.

According to Benkin and Choudhury, that release came in part through the intervention of Kirk's office. Kirk could not be reached for comment.

Why is the government persisting with a case that much of the world considers to be politically motivated?

"The government cannot overrule the court's normal procedure. Whatever decision is taken by the court, the government will honor that decision," said Golam Sarwar, political minister at the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington, D.C.

According to Teresita Schaffer -- who from 1992 to 1995 served as U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh and is now South Asia director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank -- the government could be pressing the case for any number of reasons, including the possibility that it's trying to curry favor with Islamic political parties.

"When I lived there, it was a conservative country, but radicalism was practically unknown. But this shift is part of the change that has taken place in lots of Muslim countries," she said.

For his part, Choudhury insists that the majority of his countrymen are moderates, but that radicals are wielding disproportionate influence.

"Radicals stand up, radicals speak out, and we the majority, are silent," he said.

Choudhury vowed to continue to fight his charges, publish critical articles, and one day visit Israel.

Benkin sounds equally determined.

"You think you can wait us out but I'll never stop. If I walk away from this while this is unfinished, if I do that, how could I ever look at myself in the mirror again?" asked Benkin, who belongs to Temple Chai, a Reform synagogue, near Chicago. "If you want the source for moral action, go right to the Torah."

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