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November 13, 2006 edition




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Muzzling a Moderate

New York Sun Editorial
November 13, 2006


This morning in Bangladesh will begin the trial of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a journalist facing what he himself believes to be the near certainty of a death sentence for sedition. His chief crime, notwithstanding the technical charges for which he is ostensibly on trial, is sympathy for Israel. He has been accused at various times of being too pro-Jew and pro-Christian, of being an Israeli spy, and of being an agent of the Mossad. This because, unusually in a majority-Muslim country with a pronounced Islamist streak, Mr. Choudhury opted out of the ambient radicalism.

Mr. Choudhury's legal troubles began in 2003 when he attempted to travel to Tel Aviv to attend a conference hosted by the Hebrew Writers' Association. Instead of the normal $8 fine for violating the travel ban against Israel, Mr. Choudhury was arrested and beaten for 10 days while police interrogated him. He spent 17 months in jail from 2003 to 2005. Out on bail, Mr. Choudhury now finds himself in a political environment in which radical Islamist parties are a growing influence. Some human rights advocates to whom we've spoken suggest that the most recent government, led by Prime Minister Zia, didn't really want to prosecute Mr. Choudhury but couldn't afford to let him go because Islamist elements within the governing coalition, not to mention outside it, would object.

Western human rights organizations like Freedom House, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as a few local groups in Bangladesh, have been working to keep the pressure on the government to lift the legal cloud hanging over Mr. Choudhury's head. His case also got a mention in the State Department's 2005 human rights report on Bangladesh. But one human rights activist told us that America's relations with Pakistan and Bangladesh are managed from the same office at Foggy Bottom and Pakistan gets more attention. Our calls to that office for comment went unreturned.

This can be an important test for the new Congress. One of Mr. Choudhury's advocates, Richard Benkin of Chicago, points out that Bangladesh receives $63 million a year in foreign aid from America. Garment manufacture sits at the heart of Bangladesh's economy, and 70% of those exports end up in America. Let the Congress use its power, while Mr. Choudhury dons a brave face as he looks toward a likely death sentence. He has had the opportunity to flee, he told our Daniel Freedman in an interview recounted nearby on these pages, but has elected not to take it. "If I leave I will be proved to be a coward," he said. "I want to fight the matter to the last. There is no pride, no honor, and no dignity in retreating."

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