Bangladesh on Trial
March 27, 2008
Bangladesh's military caretaker government says it is serious about restoring democracy and the rule of law to the country. But Dhaka's escalating harassment of one of its most prominent journalists suggests otherwise.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of a weekly newspaper in Dhaka, was charged in January 2004 with sedition, a charge that has since been broadened to include treason, blasphemy and espionage. His real "crime" was to advocate for peaceful relations between Muslims and Jews in the Mideast and to call attention to the radical Islamist threat within Bangladesh. Pressure from the U.S. helped lead to his release on bail in April 2005, although the charges have not been dropped.
Now Dhaka is ratcheting up the pressure. On March 18, more than a dozen members of the government's Rapid Action Battalion stormed Mr. Choudhury's newspaper offices in Dhaka at gunpoint. After "discovering" illegal drugs in Mr. Choudhury's desk drawer, the RAB blindfolded Mr. Choudhury and a colleague and carted them to headquarters. There, Mr. Choudhury tells us, his interrogators accused him of being a "Zionist spy" and beat his colleague, Mahboob Ar Rahman, a 57-year-old man who had to seek medical treatment. The pair were released after midnight.
The RAB has a reputation for extreme thuggishness. Created in 2004 by the civilian government in place at the time, it is supposed to be an elite counter-terrorism force. As Mr. Choudhury left their custody, his RAB abductors told him that if he raised a fuss about the incident they'd return, perhaps to his home next time. He tells us the threats have continued for the past week.
Mr. Choudhury speculates the new threats are a result of Dhaka's growing embarrassment at the international pressure being brought to bear on his behalf, particularly from the U.S. Congress and the European Union. For at least the past year, the U.S. embassy and EU delegation have sent officers to observe the journalist's monthly hearings. A day after the latest such hearing, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Dhaka to drop the charges against Mr. Choudhury; the vote was 409-1. Dhaka can't help but notice, given the $110 million in aid Washington plans to send during fiscal 2008.
The world can't afford for Bangladesh's transition to democracy to fail, and Mr. Choudhury's case is one test of the government's commitment to keeping the influence of Islamists in check. Mr. Choudhury, for his part, is undeterred. When we spoke to him yesterday he was preparing to publish the newspaper's next issue. For his country's sake, he should be allowed to do so unmolested.
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