Since his arrest on November 29, 2003, Bangladeshi journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, has been hauled before the court more than half a dozen times. Each time, the result was the same. Choudhury was returned to prison for “interrogation,” with no formal charges launched against him.
This week, Choudhury’s supporters fully expected him to be released, but on January 15, 2004, the presiding magistrate ruled otherwise, sending him back to prison, even while admitting his only offense was a minor one, whose accused are normally granted bail. Why this interruption of Bangladesh justice; why Choudhury? The answer involves his nation’s Islamic Fundamentalists, Middle Eastern politics, and Jewish-Muslim relations
With each return to prison, Choudhury was subjected to abominable living conditions and lack of needed medical treatment. He was housed with the criminally insane, whose wailing prevented him from sleeping and caused him extreme mental anguish. He also faced relentless interrogation, in which he was pressured to admit — falsely — that he was in the employ of the Mossad, so to subordinate the interests of his own country to those of Israel. He recognized known Islamic Fundamentalists among his interrogators, and believed in his country’s commitment to democracy. He also knew there was no truth to such an admission. Ironically his own Muslim faith and sense of decency that kept him from succumbing to the unceasing grind.
Choudhury, editor of the weekly entertainment magazine “Blitz,” was arrested just before boarding a plane for Bangkok, and ultimately Tel Aviv. There, he was to have addressed a writers’ symposium, sponsored by the non-political IFLAC. But even prior to that, he came under the scrutiny of Bangladesh’s Islamic fundamentalists for a series of articles advocating dialogue and understanding between Jews and Muslims and formal or informal ties between his Islamic
nation and Israel.
Before Choudhury’s efforts, the Bangladesh press carried uniformly anti-Israeli articles and opinion pieces. Choudhury’s own writings and a growing number by other authors were beginning to spark something of a debate about the Middle East and the role that Bangladesh and other non-Arab Muslim nations might play. And that dialogue was spreading to other papers, as well.
After his arrest, Bangladesh police raided his home and offices, seizing files, computers, and just about anything else they could take, all in the hopes of finding evidence for their desired charges of espionage. At the same time, using deliberate leaks and wild accusations designed to inflame sentiment against Choudhury, the press initiated an ongoing campaign of vilification. He was labeled a traitor, an Israeli spy, a Mossad agent, and anti-Islam.
As time went by and there were neither charges nor evidence for such accusations, strategically placed articles spoke of personal misconduct, without ever providing any specific instances of such action.
Neither did his adversaries ever address the more serious charges except to repeat them without offering any evidence. Most recently, Choudhury was accused of being a former Muslim fundamentalist whose current actions were only intended to bring him personal gain.
Their story kept changing, and all the while, police agents threatened charges of anti-state and anti-religious activities, treason and sedition. During several court appearances, the government requested continued detention so it could gather evidence for such charges — an odd request considering that its agents told the press that they already had “overwhelming” evidence for them. By the second week in January, however, such threats stopped. Choudhury was moved from Cantonment Prison in Dhaka back to the airport police station whence he was initially taken. That seemed further evidence that he would be released when the legal limit of his detention was reached on January 15. At that hearing, the magistrate confirmed that there were no sedition charges, and that Choudhury’s only offense was a technical violation of the Bangladesh immigration laws. Yet, instead of granting him bail, as required by law, she sent him back to prison because the case was “too sensitive.”
Choudhury’s next move is to appeal to higher courts, where he can expect justice. On December 7, one of Bangladesh’s most respected legal minds, Dr. Kama Hossain, suggested that justice likely would remain elusive until the case came before higher courts, less susceptible to political and other pressures. At this point, the family does not have a docket date before the court, and several questions remain even after Choudhury’s release. When will his files be returned –and in what condition — so that he can resume publication? What recourse does he have for this false imprisonment and the libelous actions of various media? And will he be able to resume the dialogue about the Middle East and about ways that his people can help bring about peace?
The world, now, is watching.
Dr. Richard L. Benkin can be contacted via [email protected]