WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 (JTA) — For a man who says he
could be condemned to death as early as next month, Salah Uddin Shoaib
Choudhury is surprisingly calm.
Choudhury’s crime: calling for diplomatic ties between his native Bangladesh and the State of Israel.
“The High Court has ruled that by conveying
the message of the rise of Islamic militancy in
Bangladesh to Jews and Christians, and by advocating relations between
Dhaka and Jerusalem, I have damaged the image of Bangladesh worldwide,”
The 41-year-old journalist and editor spoke to
JTA in a 20-minute phone interview last week from Dhaka, the
Bangladeshi capital. He said his trial for sedition, blasphemy and
treason, which began in September, will resume Jan. 22 after a short
Choudhury, who is free on bail, said there is little
chance of receiving a fair trial, and he probably will be sentenced to
death. He spoke from a secure landline since his cell phone is under
government surveillance, Choudhury said.
“The judicial system is
corrupted by Islamic radicals,” he said. “By continuing this trial and
convicting me, they want to send the message that anyone else in
Bangladesh who thinks as I do will face the same consequences.”
is the editor and publisher of The Weekly Blitz, an English-language
newspaper founded in 2003 that now has 7,500 print subscribers and
another 40,000 readers online.
Those numbers may not sound
impressive for Bangladesh — a nation of 145 million people packed into
an area the size of Wisconsin — but the newspaper is read regularly by
policymakers, businesspeople and other influential Bangladeshis, as
well as foreign diplomats.
A Muslim, Choudhury first came into
contact with Jews in the early 1990s while working as Dhaka
correspondent for the Russian news agency Tass.
friendships with Jewish colleagues despite the anti-Semitic propaganda
so prevalent in Bangladesh, which is 85 percent Muslim and ranks as the
world’s third-most populous Muslim nation after Indonesia and Pakistan.
“When I was a child, my father always encouraged us not to
believe the Friday afternoon sermons of hate coming from the mosque,”
said Choudhury, who began a dialogue with editors at the Jerusalem Post
three years ago and eventually was invited to Israel by the Hebrew
But Choudhury never made it to Jerusalem.
Nov. 29, 2003, as he was about to board a plane in Dhaka for the
circuitous journey to Israel, Choudhury was arrested and his passport
was confiscated, David Harris, executive director of the American
Jewish Committee, said in a prepared statement. He was accused of
espionage and charged with sedition.
Choudhury “spent the next
17 months in hellish prison conditions, including torture, denial of
medical attention and isolation” as the government tried to build a
case that Choudhury was an Israeli spy, Harris said.
released in April 2005, thanks largely to the efforts of U.S. Rep. Mark
Kirk (R-Ill.) and Dr. Richard Benkin, a Jewish activist from Chicago.
the sedition charge is pending, and in October, a mob of 40 Islamic
militants beat Choudhury in his Dhaka office — three months after the
office was firebombed.
On Nov. 14, Kirk and Rep. Nita Lowey
(D-N.Y.) cosponsored a resolution calling on the Bangladeshi government
to drop all charges against Choudhury, stop “harassment and
intimidation,” and “hold accountable those responsible for attacks”
Choudhury initially was charged with passport
violations; the sedition charges were added nearly two months later.
Among other things, Choudhury was accused of writing an inflammatory
column titled “Hello Tel Aviv” for USA Today.
“I never wrote
any such article,” he insisted. “Even the prosecution said he had no
document available because it was never published.”
October, The Washington Times published an editorial urging the Bush
administration to suspend $63 million in annual aid to Bangladesh
unless the charges against Choudhury are dropped. Besides the
AJCommittee, other organizations that have been outspoken in the case
include Reporters Without Borders, Scholars for Peace in the Middle
East and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
the attacks, Shamsher Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United
States, insisted that Choudhury the journalist is a conniving liar with
a criminal past.
“In Bangladesh, nobody is a prisoner of
conscience,” the ambassador told JTA. “There is no such thing as
putting a journalist behind bars for expressing his views. We have
total freedom of the press. If he’s saying he was arrested for
advocating ties with Israel, then he’s not telling the truth. That
cannot be a charge. That’s not sedition.”
Chowdhury said it is
“totally untrue” that the journalist was beaten by a mob outside his
office as police stood by idly, as Choudhury has claimed.
from being a “prisoner of conscience” for advocating ties with Israel,
Chowdhury said the journalist in the past has been found guilty of
embezzlement and misappropriation of funds.
“In 2003 he leaked
very classified information about the government which we thought
endangered state security,” Chowdhury said. “So charges of sedition
were brought against him, and now the matter is before the court. He’s
on bail and free to write and correspond with people. He has a valid
passport and is free to travel.”
The ambassador claims Choudhury
“is in touch with his friends here and has even thanked the Bangladeshi
government for creating a situation where he can travel. He doesn’t
feel threatened anymore.”
Choudhury responded angrily to the ambassador’s claims.
“He’s a committed liar,” he said. “This is nothing but a damn lie.”
the Chicago activist, said the Bangladeshi government — including the
ambassador, whom he met in April 2005 with Kirk — has lost all
“The government has never produced a scintilla of
credible evidence against him,” Benkin said. “Over three years ago they
said he was guilty. They tortured him for 17 months and they’re still
carrying out this persecution.”
He added that the Bangladeshi
government demonizes Israel, even naming a bridge after Hezbollah in
the wake of the terrorist group’s war against Israel last summer.
practices Judaism openly in Bangladesh, though Choudhury said 150 to
200 Jews live in Dhaka, where they keep an extremely low profile and
meet secretly in private homes.
Benkin’s Web site,
www.freechoudhury.com, calls on Americans to boycott apparel made in
Bangladesh — a crucial industry that employs more than 2 million people
— to pressure the government to drop the Choudhury case.
who has never met Choudhury, applied three times this year for a visa
to Bangladesh but was rejected. Under pressure, however, Chowdhury the
ambassador recently changed his mind and granted a visa to Benkin, who
plans to fly to Dhaka early next month.
In another development,
Canadian legislator and human-rights lawyer Irwin Cotler announced he
would defend Choudhury in court. A former justice minister of Canada
and past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Cotler has
represented prisoners of conscience including South Africa’s Nelson
Mandela, Argentina’s Jacobo Timerman and Soviet refusenik Natan
Despite the risks, Choudhury said he had no intention of asking for political asylum abroad.
not going to do that because there is no dignity, no pride or honor in
quitting,” he said. “I have complete faith and trust in God, and in my
brothers and sisters around the world who are working on my behalf.”