We are taught in the Talmud that “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Today a life is at risk in a Bangladeshi court. The man’s name is Salah
Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. He is a journalist and editor of Blitz, an
English-language weekly newspaper. He is on trial for sedition,
punishable by death in Bangladesh.
His alleged “crime”? In the words of the presiding judge: “By praising
the Jews and Christians, by attempting to travel to Israel, and by
predicting the so-called rise of Islamist militancy in the country and
expressing such through writings inside the country and abroad, you
have tried to damage the image and relations of Bangladesh with the
In other words, Mr. Choudhury believes in interfaith dialogue and
respect, normalized ties between Bangladesh and Israel, and opposition
to Islamic radicalism. Those views could cost him his life.
His difficulties began in 2003 when he became interested in Israel and
initiated correspondence with a Jerusalem Post editor. That led to an
article he wrote for the paper advocating the establishment of peaceful
relations between his country and Israel. The piece caught the
attention of an Israeli scholar, who invited him to give a lecture in
Israel at the International Forum for Literature and Culture of Peace.
He accepted, but never made it.
As Mr. Choudhury was about to board a plane in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s
capital, for the long, circuitous journey, he was arrested and his
passport was confiscated. He was accused of espionage and charged with
sedition. He spent the next 17 months in hellish prison conditions,
including torture, denial of medical attention and isolation.
He was released in April 2005, largely because of the determined
efforts of two individuals—Dr. Richard Benkin, a Jewish community
activist from Chicago, and Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk.
But that release was followed by more harassment, threats on his life,
attacks on his newspaper’s offices, and the looming trial. When the
American Jewish Committee sought to present Mr. Choudhury with its
Moral Courage Award in May 2006, Bangladeshi authorities once again
prevented him from leaving the country. Instead, he spoke movingly via
video hook-up, while Dr. Benkin came to Washington to accept the AJC
tribute on behalf of a man he refers to as his brother.
The trial has now begun. The judge in the case is widely known for his
link to Islamic radicals. The chances of Mr. Choudhury receiving a fair
hearing are slim.
Remarkably, throughout this three-year ordeal, Mr. Choudhury has stood
unbowed and unbent. He has faced his accusers with remarkable courage,
stoicism and equanimity.
As outside lifelines, Dr. Benkin and Rep. Kirk have remained tenacious,
constantly reminding the Bangladeshi government that this case is being
monitored carefully and urging others to join with them in defense of
The State Department, United States Commission on International
Religious Freedom, PEN USA, some individual Members of Congress and a
few newspapers have spoken out. [See Editorial, “Deadly Profession,”
Oct. 13] Most recently, Rep. Kirk, a Republican, and Rep. Nita Lowey, a
New York Democrat, introduced a resolution calling on the Bangladeshi
government to drop all pending charges against Mr. Choudhury, return
his confiscated possessions, stop “harassment and intimidation,” and
hold “accountable those responsible for attacks against” him. (To urge
Members of Congress to support this initiative, visit www.ajc.org.)
In a world where radical Islam is on the march, threatening moderate
Muslims and non-Muslims alike, outspoken and fearless individuals like
Mr. Choudhury deserve our full support. It is they, after all, who are
on the front lines.
The goal should be to send an unmistakable signal to the Bangladeshi
government, a recipient of U.S. aid, that the case is being watched and
its outcome could affect bilateral ties. Other countries committed to
freedom of speech, human dignity and mutual respect should also be
heard from—and their diplomats seen in the Bangladeshi courtroom to
demonstrate tangible concern. To date, regrettably, too few have been
either heard or seen. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is by no
means an exclusively American or Jewish issue; rather, it is a matter
of fundamental human rights.
The history of the human rights struggle, whether behind the Iron
Curtain or in South Africa during the apartheid era, underscores the
need to focus the spotlight on offending nations, depict the plight of
individuals, and urge democratic countries to include human rights
concerns high on their agenda when dealing with the offending nations.
For those concerned about the outcome of the titanic clash in the
Muslim world between radicals and moderates, and who wish the latter to
know they do not stand alone in their valiant struggle, Mr. Choudhury’s
case demands our attention—and now. n
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.