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Trade Bill Stalled in Senate Committee

Friday June 08 2007 19:01:05 PM BDT

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin , USA

Washington, USA — A bill designed to give Bangladesh and certain other less developed countries tariff relief, has been languishing in a Senate committed for almost four months with no contemplated action in sight. Senator Gordon Smith, Republican from Oregon, proposed Senate Bill 652 (SB652) on February 15, 2007 Known as the “Trade Act of 2007,” the bill was read into the record and immediately referred to the Senate Finance Committee where it has sat ever since with no action taken. Even a personal appeal by Muhammed Yunis failed to move the bill at all.According to one Senator on the Committee, it is still “under referral.”

“No one was going to be rude to Yunis,” one Washington insider told me, “after all he is a Nobel Laureate. But no one was going to do anything either.”

SB652 is the sort of bill that generally sails through Congress with little or only token opposition. Initiators carefully made sure that its provisions do not draw the ire of any American manufacturing sectors, for instance, that might fear being hurt by the preferences. Some of the SB652’s recipient nations, such as Sri Lanka, are sympathetic to Americans, and SB652’s role in helping it recover from the 2004 tsunami gets prominent mention in the bill. Most of the other recipient nations are relatively unknown in the US and not likely to arouse much passion either way; countries like Bhutan, Kiribati, and the Maldives. As if to further solidify easy passage, the bill’s few co-sponsors represent both major parties equally.

Then why are no hearings or debates on the bill even scheduled?

Senators on the Committee, as well as the bill’s co-sponsors have been getting a great deal of flak from their constituents about the bill. Specifically, Washington staffers report that quite a few citizens are urging these Senators not to allow SB652 see the light of day without specific language that requires Bangladesh to drop all charges against Weekly Blitz editor, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury in order to qualify for the tariff relief. The BNP-Jamaat government arrested Shoaib in 2003 ostensibly for trying to visit Israel. That minor Passport Act violation carries a 500 taka fine, but the government held him for seventeen months often under very harsh conditions. During incessant “interrogation,” both of his legs were broken in an attempt to extract a false confession that he was a spy for the Jewish state. He also was deprived of needed health care. In April 2005, the government reluctantly released Shoaib and promised US lawmakers and others that they would drop the charges which officials admitted have no substance. At least two former BNP officials said they remained only “for fear of how the radicals would react.”

Earlier this year, the US Congress passed House Resolution 64 by an overwhelming 409-1 margin. Introduced by Congressman Mark Kirk of suburban Chicago, it calls on the Bangladesh government to keep its promises and drop all charges against Shoaib. And therein lays a major problem for Bangladesh with regard to SB652. Many point out that until this happens, Bangladesh stands in “direct defiance” of the US Congress disqualifying it for trade—or any other—preferences.

Said one influential Senator’s aid, his boss “had no idea” that SB652 would have such a negative impact on Shoaib’s case, and he doubts highly that “anything will happen with it until the charges are dropped.”

The European and Australian Parliaments also have passed resolutions urging the charges be dropped; and individual lawmakers from Canada, Ireland, England, and elsewhere have come out publicly with the same position.

All is not lost for Bangladesh, however. Another SB652 country that spurred opposition is Yemen, known in the US as a home for terrorists; but recent severe anti-terrorist actions there have muted the opposition. By dropping the charges, this government not only will mute opposition to SB652, but its action will confirm to the world that it truly has broken ranks with its predecessors that maintained the false charges against Shoaib against the interests of the Bangladeshi people.

Richard L. Benkin has been termed a “tireless human rights activist” by the US Congress, and led the successful fight to free Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury from prison. His articles have appeared internationally, and he writes regularly for the Bangladeshi press. Benkin is the Special Advisor to The Intelligence Summit on Bangladeshi Affairs and was in Dhaka in January when the State of Emergency was declared. He can be reached at http://www.InterfaithStrength.com.E mail : drrbenkin@comcast.net


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