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November 13, 2006 edition

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Save This Man

By DANIEL FREEDMAN
November 13, 2006

A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Today may be an ordinary day for the rest of us, but it is the day that Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury goes on trial for his life in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mr. Choudhury, a Bangladeshi journalist, is accused, he told me, of "praising Jews and Christians," "spying for Israel," and being "an agent of the Mossad" — because he advocated relations between Israel and Bangladesh. He's also accused of being critical of Islamic radicals, which is considered blasphemy. He committed these crimes by writing articles favorable toward Jews and Christians.

When I interviewed him by telephone on Friday, I found him remarkably calm for someone facing death. I sat for a few minutes in a state of near shock after our conversation ended with him politely thanking me for my time and saying, "I hope that people in the world will stand with us against radical Islamists. We can be free together and secure the world for future generations."

He did so, he says, because while he was born and raised in a Muslim country, Bangladesh, where he was taught a "religion of hatred" and a "religion of jihad," his father "told from an early age not to listen and to learn for himself." He did and became friends with Jews, realized the lies he had been taught, and wanted to end "the culture of hatred." He says that if "Muslim countries want peace, they need relations with Israel."

Mr. Choudhury says he holds no hope of getting a fair trial. The judge, he says, is a radical Islamist who has already made clear his view that Mr. Choudhury is guilty. "In open court ... he made comments that by praising Christians and Jews I have hurt the sentiment of Muslims ... which is a crime," the journalist says. Other comments made by the judge have made it clear, Mr. Choudhury tells me, that the judge's goal is a conviction and a death sentence. Mr. Choudhury describes his judge as a "one man judge and jury," and Mr. Choudhury cannot even present witnesses in his own defense. Why hasn't Mr. Choudhury fled Bangladesh despite, he says, having had the opportunity? Because, he says, "if I leave I will be proved to be a coward ... I want to fight the matter to the last." Many of Mr. Choudhury's colleagues have fled the country, but Mr. Choudhury, a practicing Muslim, wants to live free in his own country and beat the case set against him. "There is no pride, no honor, and no dignity in retreating," he says.

Mr. Choudhury's pretrial run hasn't been easy. He spent 17 months between 2003 and 2005 in prison without trial. Just this year he's been attacked twice: In July, his office was bombed, and in October he was assailed in person. Both times the police did nothing. But he has received support from some quarters of Bangladeshi society. The Bangladesh Minority Lawyer's Association has been especially supportive. He said there are "many good Muslims who are silently expressing solidarity," but they fear repercussions from the radicals.

Richard Benkin, the Chicago-based analyst who introduced me to Mr. Choudhury, began a friendship with Mr. Choudhury in 2003, before Mr. Choudhury's ordeal started. Mr. Benkin says Mr. Choudhury wrote him an e-mail in response to some online articles he'd written about Israel "which essentially said ‘my country gets biased and incomplete information about Jews and Israel ... I know there is more, can you help?'"

Mr. Choudhury's case may be relatively unfamiliar to most Americans, aside from a recent column by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. But Mr. Choudhury does have some American allies. Mr. Benkin reports that Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican of Illinois, has been "fantastic." Mr. Kirk demanded a meeting with Bangladesh's ambassador to America in 2005, and three weeks later Mr. Choudhury was freed — after his 17 months in jail without trial. The ambassador admitted to them, Mr. Benkin says, that the charges were false. The government of Bangladesh promised the charges would be dropped, but they never were. The government feared, Mr. Benkin says, the reaction of radical Islamists who were coalition partners.

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