On Tuesday, members of Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, a paramilitary wing of the government, stormed the offices of Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, arrested and interrogated him. In 2003, Mr. Choudhury, editor of the newspaper The Weekly Blitz, was arrested and tortured for seventeen months. His “crimes” included trying to visit Israel, investigating the indoctrination of Bangladeshi children into radical Islam, and advocating interfaith dialogue.
Thanks to quick thinking and action on the part of Dr. Richard Benkin, former DePaul University professor of sociology and Mr. Choudhury’s champion here in the U.S., Mr. Choudhury was released on Tuesday. (Dr. Benkin appears to have effected Mr. Choudhury’s release, for the present, with the assistance of several members of Congress including Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), and Rep. Steven Rothman (D-NJ)). Kudos to these leaders in the U.S. Congress for taking an essential stand in defending one of the rare defenders of a free press in the Muslim world.
But in an e-mail Dr. Benkin circulated hours after Mr. Choudhury’s release, he cautioned that the Bangladeshi government’s harassment of Mr. Choudhury is a test of the free world, and is not over.
“[I]n my years of work on this case, I have learned that every government action is a probe of our resolve to continue the fight against injustice–a resolve several government officials have told me we do not have,” Dr. Benkin wrote.
Mr. Choudhury, known to his friends as “Shoaib,” continues to write investigative pieces about the rise of radical Islam in his country, even as he is threatened with harassment and violence from the government and other corners of Bangladeshi society. In the fall, I had the honor and the pleasure of spending the day with him when he came to New York City for his first visit.
It was abundantly clear that his tormentors have not succeeded in extinguishing Mr. Choudhury’s capacity for joy. We shared French fries, drank Cokes, played Billy Joel’s “My Life” on the jukebox–and sang along–in a Jackson Heights diner, ran around Manhattan buying toys, suitcases, and I-heart-NYC T-shirts for his family and bodyguards (“I am going so crazy like this because I haven’t shopped in four years,” he told me), and got manicures together. This remarkable man, who has endured physical torture for writing the truth, would not speak much about the horrors.
But he did tell me that in prison, he thought of the victims of the Holocaust. “My agonies, my pain—if my pain is like this, how much must they have suffered? When you are in that condition you really can feel the pain of others…so after 17 months in prison, my agonies, my pains turned into my anger, my strength, and my commitment.
“April 30, 2005 I was released…It was the seventh day of Passover, that G-d divided the ocean, I think that was the day G-d opened the prison gates for me….I called [Dr. Benkin] and said, ‘Brother, I am free,’ [and] Dr. Benkin said, ‘I think you must rest.’
“I said, ‘If I need to take a rest, for what I am released?
“From that moment I changed The Blitz from a secular newspaper to a Zionist paper.”
A provocateur, Mr. Choudhury’s flamboyance belies a passionate desire to tell the truth, plain and simple, to his countrymen, many of whom have been brainwashed about Israel, Jews, Christians, and America.
“As a child, I heard all the sermons, ‘Kill them…the Jews and Christians are your enemies,’” he told me in the fall.
But he had a freethinking father who taught him to question this bigotry. During a stint as a newspaperman in the former Soviet Union, several Russian Jewish refuseniks became his close friends.
In May 2003, he established his newspaper, The Weekly Blitz. While he created it as a vehicle for investigative, muckraking journalism, it did not originally have an ideological mission.
“My father died a month later,” Mr. Choudhury recalled. “When a parent dies, every child feels an obligation to accomplish that parent’s dreams.”
And so The Weekly Blitz was reborn. Since that time, the paper has printed the first-ever interview of an Israeli in a Bangladeshi newspaper, many editorials “combating hatred and misinformation about Israel” and numerous investigative and opinion pieces “treading into the areas of taboo in the Muslim world,” according to Mr. Choudhury.
Not long after establishing the newspaper, he attempted to travel to Israel, and was arrested. “I wanted to show Israelis I am a Muslim from a Muslim country and I am here with a message of peace,” he says.
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