Fighting Injustice and Jihad in Bangladesh

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

September 25, 2006


At about 2:50am on Monday, September 18, 2006, I was awakened by a call from my spiritual brother and colleague, journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.  Just ten minutes earlier, a Bangladeshi judge had ordered him to stand trial for sedition, a capital offense.  The judge’s ruling stunned not only Shoaib and his attorneys, but also the Bangladeshi Public Prosecutor who had recently told the judge that he had no objections to the charges being dropped.


The judge’s ruling stunned us also because several Bangladeshi officials assured us that their prosecution of the case was designed to cause all charges to be dropped in accordance with Bangladeshi law.  Previously, these same and other officials admitted that there was indeed no credible evidence for the charges; and one judge had opined that they “were not sustainable.”  Over a period of months, which included numerous continuances and delays, the prosecution had failed by any measure to make a case for any further waste of time and the Bangladeshis’ limited resources.  In fact, after the final hearing, the Public Prosecutor went up to Shoaib and congratulated him on finally seeing an end to this prosecution.  There was indeed no basis for sustaining the charges, but various officials told us that they were afraid to drop them for fear of how “the radicals would react.”  Not incidentally, they also thought it might cost the BNP votes in the upcoming election.


Seventeen months earlier, I succeeded with the strong support of US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) and others in securing Shoaib’s release from an imprisonment of the same length.  During that time he was tortured, denied health care, and deliberately kept under extremely adverse conditions (e.g., housed in a ward for the criminally insane whose incessant screams prevented extended sleep or the ability to reflect).  At times, his life was in danger, and at one point, a bomb was discovered near his cell.  Shoaib’s “crime” was that he pursued the same courageous course that is in the finest tradition of journalism.  As early as 2003, he warned his country about the rise of radical Islam there, urged Bangladesh to recognize Israel, and advocated real interfaith dialogue and religious equality.  His efforts were so courageous that sadly, very few in the Bangladesh media had the discernment to defend this attack on their rights.  When police grabbed Shoaib as he was about to board a plane that would eventually take him to Israel for an historic address on how the media can build a “culture of peace,” not one of the major media outlets in Bangladesh objected.  For shame!


Three weeks before his release, Kirk and I met with Bangladesh Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury in Kirk’s Washington office.  After a frank and sometimes adverse meeting, Chowdhury agreed that Shoaib would be released.  (At the meeting, Chowdhury referred to the charges as “a mere personal financial dispute” and nothing that warranted the sedition charge or Shoaib’s treatment.)  Kirk and I, however, did not find that acceptable.  Leaving the admittedly false charges pending not only kept open the possibility of a renewed prosecution; but it is also a well-worn tactic used to silence dissidents.  Eventually, Chowdhury acceded and promised that the government would drop the charges.  This promise was reiterated several times by various Bangladeshi officials, including Home Minister Lutfuzzamen Babar who has the legal standing to drop the charges or withdraw the prosecution.  He did not, perennially concerned about angering the same radicals who had recently set off terror bombs among his people; and so opted for the Byzantine process he took instead.  To Babar’s credit, things seemed to be working, but our collective expectations failed to consider the almost total power in the hands of individual Bangladeshi judges.


Judge Mohammed Momin Ullah, who had been presiding over the case, often appeared to be an agent of the prosecution.  On the final court date, when the prosecution was to present its case against Shoaib, the judge repeatedly challenged the lack of evidence on the prosecution’s part, asking very pointed questions designed to give the state a chance to explain its position and present additional evidence.  Yet, in every single such incident, the prosecution demurred and admitted that it had no real evidence.  So obvious was it that after the hearing the Public Prosecutor congratulated Shoaib in anticipation of an order to drop the charges.  But that was not to be.  Ignoring the lack of evidence and the state’s explicit desire to drop the charges, ­­­­­Ullah ruled that Shoaib’s trial for sedition would proceed.


It cannot be ignored that Ullah is a member of the radical (and often terrorist) Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).  The JMB has long made public its goal to turn Bangladeshi into a Taliban state.  Last year, it set off a number of terrorist bombs throughout the country and demanded that Sharia (Muslim religious law) become the law of the land.  The JMB has threatened to kill any official that stands in the way of that goal.  JMB operatives, as well as their associates in the ruling coalition also have a history of using the court system to further their goals.  Yet, Ullah is allowed to have unchallenged decision making authority in his case of a pro-Israel, anti-terror Muslim who will not be cowed into silence.  Particularly irksome is the fact that the Bangladesh Home Ministry under Babar has withdrawn hundreds of cases of murder, extortion, corruption, and other notorious cases lodged against their own party members and officials.  It appears that the BNP leaders believed they were in control of the government and the coalition but are realizing that it is not the case.  As I have pointed out in several intelligence analyses, the radicals are preparing for an all-out offense to grab a greater share of government power after the January elections.


Former Israeli cabinet minister and columnist Michael Freund recently asked me if I thought Shoaib could get a fair trial.  He cannot; certainly not with this judge.  He is under no requirement to recuse himself despite the clear bias and conflict of interest.  And there is no chance that others will force a change.  That makes Shoaib’s conviction a foregone conclusion and the trial a farce.


In Bangladesh, unlike most civilized countries, the accused is not ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty.’  It has been almost three years since Shoaib’s arrest, and the government has never produced a scintilla of credible evidence to support a sedition charge.  Yet, Shoaib and his family have suffered extensively.  In addition to the horrors of Shoaib’s imprisonment and torture by Islamist members of the government and police, his family was subjected to a number of abuses.  Early on, angry mobs would gather in front of the family residence.  Deliberate and false government leaks called Shoaib a spy for Israel (with me as his Mossad contact!) and fueled a public vilification program.  His young children were harassed at school and had to be kept home for their safety.  The family was under continuous pressure by religious groups to denounce Shoaib.  This was especially stressful for his elderly mother who had a heart attack and died in the wake of it.  Despite extensive precedent for doing so, the Bangladeshis refused to allow Shoaib to attend his mother’s funeral (in Islam, the “final prayer).  During Shoaib’s imprisonment, his brother and principle spokesman, Sohail Choudhury, was physically attacked and twice had to flee the capital for a safe house.  When he reported the attacks to the police, they refused to take any action or even log the incidents; claiming that it was the Choudhurys’ fault for “their alliance with the Jews.”


All of that happened when Shoaib was merely accused; before any case was to proceed.  If we allow this travesty to continue without international outrage and oversight, there is little doubt that the fate of this courageous individual and his family will be dire.  Even if he ultimately is acquitted on appeal, it will take two to three years.  The family will never get back that part of their lives that will be taken from them; neither will Shoaib be made whole from the torture or false imprisonment.  The family be recompensed the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the process has and will require.  Yet, Shoaib is determined to press on with a strong faith in God, in his supporters, and in the belief that justice will triumph in the end.  His wife, “Happy,” is equally strong and stands by him.  His two young children are frightened, though not so much for themselves but for what might happen to the father they admire greatly.


In the coming weeks, I will unveil various projects in which many people can share to help Shoaib and his family.  Moreover, we already are working on several measures intended to insure justice in this case, which evidently the government of Bangladesh is unable to insure itself.


The unjust treatment of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a tragedy and a travesty in and of itself.  For that reason alone, we must fight it.  But consider, as well, that many other Muslims have said privately that people are looking at the case.  Many Muslims in places like Bangladesh feel much as Shoaib does.  Most, however, fear the retribution that Shoaib has withstood and are largely silent.  If we allow Shoaib to go down, they will likely remain silent.  But if we defeat those who are trying to hijack their faith and their countries, they will be emboldened to stand up, as well, for justice and ultimately for all of us.


You want a War on Terror, this one without guns but with equal courage?  Here it is.