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Critical Week for US-Bangladesh relations

Critical Week for

US-Bangladesh relations

Dr. Richard L. Benkin writes from USA

What happens in a Dhaka courtroom this week could mean the difference between poverty and prosperity for millions of Bangladeshis.  On Thursday, Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is scheduled to have his long anticipated day in court.  It is long anticipated because many of his defenders, including several western diplomats and lawmakers, expect the Bangladeshi government finally to withdraw the charges against him; charges they long ago admitted never had any substance to them.

Shoaib was arrested in 2003 after writing articles exposing the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh and its insidious spread through Muslim madrassas.  He also urged Israel and Bangladesh relations as well as interfaith dialogue based on mutual respect.  But as he was about to board a plane to address a writers group in Israel—on the media’s role in building a culture of peace, evidently something the former government found abhorrent—agents arrested him.  They held him for seventeen months, at first refusing to charge him with anything, hauling him in and out of court.  His family was attacked, his newspaper suspended.  When his brother reported the beating to the police, they blamed the Choudhury’s for “their alliance with the Jews.”  They tortured him.  They refused to give him needed medical care.  And they only let him out after a relentless effort on the part of US Congressman Mark Kirk and me.

At the April 8, 2005, meeting between Kirk, Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, and me that led to Shoaib’s release, the Ambassador began with a string of denials and even claimed falsely that Shoaib was being treated well and receiving the medical care that the courts had ordered for him.  After sometimes difficult discussion, however, he dropped the party line (as it was clear that neither the Congressman nor I came to the table without doing our own research).  He finally relented and said that the government would release Shoaib on bail.  On bail?  Congressman Kirk and I were aghast.  Shamsher Chowdhury already admitted that there was nothing in the charge rising to the level of sedition.  He said it was a “personal financial dispute” and nothing more.  He admitted, as did others before and after him, that the government was obliged to maintain the false charges nonetheless for fear of “how the radicals would react” if they dropped them.

I rejected Shamsher Chowdhury’s offer.  “Not good enough,” I said.  Despotic regimes frequently use that sort of ruse: appear to allow differing opinion but leave the serious charges pending in an effort to silence the dissident.  Shamsher Chowdhury had no choice.  He said that the government would completely drop the false charges, asking only for a little time to get it done.  It has been well over two years and the charges remain.  The government regularly whispered about secret plans to drop the charges without angering the Islamists, but every one of these alleged efforts was undermined by the case’s radical judge.  

Today, Bangladesh has a new government, one that has taken some very public anti-radical action, one that is not supposed to be beholden to the radicals who are responsible for the charges.  There is a new judge and a new prosecutor, not affiliated with the JMB or BNP as were their predecessors.  Shoaib’s supporters in world capitals and embassies expect nothing less than his complete exoneration by the court, which also will exonerate the Bangladeshi legal system in the eyes of the world.

For the former Bangladeshi government seriously miscalculated with regard to this case.  They expected they could appease their radical partners quietly while the world ignored the plight of this one man.  And just to make sure, they began immediately after his arrest with a massive disinformation campaign against him.  But the case did not go away.  Shoaib’s supporters are planted on every continent except Antartica.  Major newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and The New York Post; The Australian, The Globe and Mail, The Jerusalem Post, The Guardian, The Kuwait Times; and many others have run editorials or articles in support of him.  The one country whose mainstream press has been silent is Bangladesh.  With very few exceptions—Weekly Blitz, of course, Amader Shomoy, News from Bangladesh—the mainstream Bangladeshi press have written nothing about this case other than to slavishly spit out the cacophony of disinformation deliberately leaked by the BNP-Jamaat government in a failed attempt to discredit Shoaib.  As press organizations from the US, Europe, and elsewhere have defended Shoaib, the silence of the major Dhaka papers appears ideological, cowardly, or both.


Shoaib’s supporters among lawmakers in most countries on which the Bangladeshi economy relies—the United States, Canada, Australia, many European nations, and some in Asia—have called publicly for the case to be dropped.  The US, European Union, and Australian Parliaments all have passed resolutions on his behalf—resolutions which Bangladesh remains in violation of as long as the admittedly false charges are maintained.  And that is why Thursday’s court proceedings are so critical for the Bangladeshi economy.

From the day Shamsher Chowdhury came to Washington as Bangladesh’s ambassador, he had one overriding goal:  a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States.  If he had any chance of success, the Shoaib case blocked it.  Shamsher Chowdhury left Washington without one.  The US has an FTA with garment producing countries of Latin America and is buying an increasing number of garment imports from giants India and China.  The only way Bangladesh can compete in the long term is with the advantages of tariff relief.   A few months ago, a bill was introduced in the US Senate that would give them a modicum of that.  SB652 is something of a consolation prize for nations without an FTA because it offers them some relief.  But SB652 is terminally stalled in committee with no prospect of moving forward largely because of Bangladeshi obstinacy on Shoaib’s case.  Shortly after SB652 was introduced, the US House passed a resolution 409-1 calling on the government to drop the charges.  As long as remains in violation of the resolution no one can consider the tariff relief that SB652 offers—let alone an FTA.  Even a personal appeal to the Senate by Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus had absolutely no effect.

The obfuscation, transparent delaying tactics, and the boldface lies of the former Bangladeshi government have complicated things significantly by allowing a number of other issues to cloud Bangladesh’s trade needs.  At this point, it is anything but certain that dropping the charges alone will move Bangladesh’s trade agenda forward.  But one thing is certain:  If the charges are not dropped on Thursday, Bangladesh will see no trade benefits whatsoever.  And with each delay, its competitors’ trade will continue to grow, perhaps permanently relegating Bangladeshi garments to a tiny share of the US market—at best.  And considering the resolutions passed in the European Union and elsewhere, those economic difficulties are likely to grow without justice in a Bangladeshi courtroom this week.
Posted on 27 Jun 2007 by Root


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