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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Journalist faces sedition trial in Bangladesh for planning to visit Israel

On Thursday in Bangladesh, journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury will begin to stand trial for sedition, a capital offense. IsraelInsider, to which Choudhury is a contributor, describes the charges and the 'trial:'
Shoaib was arrested by the Bangladesh government in 2003. He was imprisoned under often deplorable conditions and tortured after angering the government and radicals there by warning his country about the rise of Islamist terrorism in his country, urging Bangladesh to recognize Israel, and advocating REAL interfaith understanding and religious equality. In April 2005, after seventeen months in prison, the government reluctantly freed Shoaib after we waged an unrelenting battled with the help of US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL), who still is championing Shoaib's case.

The judge's ruling [to put Shoaib on trial. CiJ] came as a particular surprise as we had been led to believe that the case was about to be dropped. We had become used to empty promises from the Bangladeshi government in the past, but this time they appeared to be following up on their words with action. For months, various government officials -- when pressed and otherwise -- have admitted that there is no evidence for the charges against Shoaib. In fact, his warnings about the threat of a radical takeover have been repeated (without attribution of course) by several government officials including the Prime Minister. Various intelligence reports (some of which can be read at this site) have also confirmed the growing Islamist threat to Bangladesh democracy.

Three weeks before the Bangladesh government's 2005 release of Shoaib, I was present when Bangladesh Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury promised Congressman Kirk that the release would be but a prelude to the dropping of all charges. Chowdhury, as well as Bangladesh Home Minister Lutfuzzamen Babar repeated the promise several times since then. But their promises turned out to be empty ones. In February 2006, the government informed Shoaib that they would not drop the charges and would proceed to trial if he persisted in searching for justice in this matter. Bangladesh and various other countries often release journalists and others with unpopular views on bail, but they never drop the charges. This way they remain as a threat against further dissident activity. It has served as a fairly effective tactic, and many journalists and dissidents have gone into exile because of it. But Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a different sort of man. He continued to press for his rights and all the while continued his courageous journalistic activities. Together, Shoaib and I were gaining more and more adherents to our interfaith efforts and movement toward moderation and away from the coming storm of radicalism in Bangladesh.

Privately, several Bangladeshi officials admitted that they would like to drop the charges --especially as they want to be seen as an ally in the war on terror and a moderate Muslim nation -- but they were afraid to do so for fear of how the radicals in and out of their ruling coalition might react. (Cowering in the face of radicalism is hardly a pedigree for fighting terror!) And so they embarked on a convoluted effort that might have the effect of dropping the charges without risking the radicals' wrath. They continually delayed and said they could not proceed at one point or another. We were told that ultimately, Bangladeshi law would require that the charges would be dropped after so many delays. Then, in September, the judge directed Shoaib's attorney S N Goswami, the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association, to present his case for dropping the charge. He did. The judge then ordered the case continued and when it was joined again, the prosecutor was directed to present his case. The case was weak, and the Public Prosecutor admitted it. To successive questions by the judge, the Public Prosecutor replied that he had nothing more that would make the charge sustainable. After that session, he even congratulated Shoaib, convinced that there was no basis to proceed to trial. All of us expected a positive ruling. At the same time, Goswami warned Shoaib "not to celebrate until you have the papers in your hands."

His warning was prophetic. This judge is an open member of the Islamic radical group, Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Its stated goal is to turn Bangladesh into another Taliban state and for Sharia to be the law of the land. Shoaib represents a direct challenge to the JMB and to all radicals because he is a practicing Muslim who opposes terrorism, sparks debate on so many of the radicals' cherished issues (such as Israel and religious equality), and will not be threatened into silence. If he is allowed to go free, if free debate in Bangladeshi is allowed to stand through him, it could encourage the many other moderate Muslims to speak out and ultimately upset the radicals' dream of a new Caliphate. This same judge will now be the sole arbiter of Shoaib's fate. The trial will have no jury, and Bangladeshi judges are under no requirement to recuse themselves if they have a conflict of interest -- which is definitely the case here. Regardless of the evidence, this judge can rule Shoaib guilty and have him subjected to the harshest treatment or even sentence him to death. He has made his intention known, and in any civilized country would not be allowed to engage in this blatant act of judicial murder!

When the government informed Shoaib that they would proceed to trial back in February, three US Congressmen -- Mark Kirk, Joseph Crowley, and Peter King -- wrote a strong letter of concern promising "intense international scrutiny" should the trial proceed. At this point, given the fact that this judge has ignored all evidence, Bangladeshi law, and the government's lack of objection to dropping the charge, that scrutiny might be all that can guarantee Shoaib a fair trial on this capital offense.
For additional information, read Michael Freund's article in The Jerusalem Post, contact Dr. Benkin or visit his website.


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