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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury is still in our hearts

Shoaib is the Bangladeshi who stood up against Muslim extremism in his country, and who tried to travel to Israel in order to further dialogue. He was rewarded with a jail sentence and kafkaesque legal proceedings that include sedition charges. These have been ongoing since 2004. He has been beaten and his office has been ransacked on more than one occasion. Bangladesh reneged on an agreement with the United States to conclude his case speedily. 
Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Looking from the outside, one might conclude that the fight for Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury has reached an impasse. And while we seem well passed the time when every month brought new and significant actions by either the Bangladeshi government or Shoaib's defenders, it would be a mistake to conclude that the world has forgotten about the anti-Islamist Muslim. Not a week goes by when I do not receive at least one interrogatory about Shoaib Choudhury and his fight for justice. Sometimes, it is from the media; and even as I have been speaking about saving the Bangladeshi Hindus from government-tolerated discrimination; the events and radio shows always begin with the host asking me for an update on the fate of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.
Calls and emails come in from average citizens wanting to know if he is all right and what they can do to help. We still receive the occasional offer of asylum—something Shoaib consistently turns down because, as he makes clear, he is a Bangladeshi. "Let the radicals leave my country," he says at such times. I still get periodic questions about boycotting Bangladeshi goods; something I have been against to this point, by the way.
Significantly, however, there is continued concern on the part of governments, as well. Recent concern from the government of Australia is instructive. The Australian Foreign Ministry has expressed interest in meeting with me for an update on the status of the Shoaib Choudhury case and to see what might be proper for it to do. In a recent letter to Australian Senator Ursula Stephens, the Foreign Ministry wrote that "The Australian Government will continue to encourage the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that Mr. Choudhury's trial is conducted in an expeditious and transparent fashion in accordance with proper judicial process and that his human rights are respected at all times." Stephens is a high ranking member of the ruling party, who is close to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. She also has been an outspoken advocate for Shoaib Choudhury.
The Foreign Ministry's letter indicates where the next phase of the international struggle for justice in his case is heading. At first, that struggle was focused on gaining Shoaib's release from imprisonment and torture in accordance with legal norms and protection of his human rights. After several government officials admitted that the charges against him were "false…and only maintained to appease the radicals," efforts focused on preventing this miscarriage of justice from entering and thus polluting the Bangladeshi legal system. Ultimately, the former (BNP) government went forward with the case and in doing so, decided their political need to "appease the radicals" was more important than the damage that doing so would bring to the people of Bangladesh. Specifically, the decision has meant that every piece of legislation intended to provide tariff relief for Bangladeshi imports to the United States has been defeated without every seeing the light of day. (The United States imports about 70 percent of Bangladesh's garment exports, and has free trade agreements and other relationships with several garment exporting countries who have been steadily eroding Bangladesh's place in the US market as a result.) Several members of the Bangladeshi government were told that these consequences would follow their continued need to placate radicals, as "the American people do not intend to spend their money to support their enemies." These included the current and former Bangladeshi ambassadors to the United States and former Home Minister Lutfuzzaman Babar, who conveyed the information to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Yet, the rulers in Dhaka decided to place their personal political interests above the needs of the Bangladeshi people.
Once the legal proceedings began, internationally famed human rights attorney Irwin Cotler filed an amicus curiae brief that identified almost two dozen ways in which the case against Shoaib Choudhury violated Bangladesh's own laws and international human rights laws. Dr. Cotler has defended such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, and Saad Ibrahim, as well as Shoaib Choudhury. And since then, the proceedings themselves have been carried out contrary to accepted principles of justice worldwide. For instance, despite the fact that the charges were brought five and a half years ago, the government has not been able to provide even a shred of evidence to support them. At one point, it alleged that Shoaib wrote an article entitled, "Hello Tel Aviv" for the American paper USA Today; a completely fictitious allegation that has never been proven in the least. The trial judge told the prosecution that it would have to produce proof of the article, or he would dismiss the case. That was on August 6, 2008, yet the government never even attempted to provide any evidence, and the judge never raised the issue again. The government's case for the past seven months has consisted of one witness, the officer in charge of Shoaib's 2003 arrest, Abdul Hanif. Moreover, he has simply not shown up to testify for the past several successive court dates. There is a legal principle in civil societies world wide that "justice delayed is justice denied"; and so in any society of laws, the court would have issued a warrant for the witness to testify or dismissed the case. The government of Bangladesh has done neither. These various illegal irregularities on the part of the Bangladeshi government, prompted one US official to suggest to me in April that "because they have no case against Shoaib, the Bangladeshis are making the legal process his punishment."
And indeed, there is no movement toward any resolution of the case by the Bangladeshi court system, causing many people to question the independence of the Bangladeshi judiciary. If it proceeds along the lines of its own law, according to one expert here, it "can vindicate its entire legal system by following its own laws and dropping the case."
Many people have wondered if Bangladesh's Awami League government will break from the policies of its predecessor or continue them, making only cosmetic changes to enhance it own image. On January 12, several members of the US Congress sent a letter to the then newly elected Prime Minister. They represented Republicans, Democrats, committees that determine appropriations and trade legislation, and the US House Bangladeshi Caucus. In the letter, they congratulated Sheikh Hasina on her electoral victory and hoped she would bring "democracy, integrity and prosperity to Bangladesh. As a first step in achieving these worthy goals," they noted, "we urge your government to quickly drop all charges against Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury." "Doing so," they noted at the end of their letter, "will take a significant step toward restoring faith in the Bangladeshi government and removing a significant obstacle in Bangladeshi-American relations."
This is unusually direct language between governments, and it establishes that there has been no change in US policy in this matter, at the very least since the US Congress passed a resolution condemning the action in 2007. It also means that Bangladeshi goods will continue to be assessed higher tariffs than those of its competitors as long as it proceeds to persecute this journalist in opposition to its own constitution and international norms of human rights.
The current Bangladeshi government came to power with a promise to end that sort of injustice and corruption that has plagued Bangladesh in the international arena for years. The fact that it has done nothing to demonstrate that it is no different from previous governments is starting to take hold among many in Washington and elsewhere. Some legal experts are starting to see if the continued persecution Shoaib Choudhury can be the basis for a case against Bangladesh at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Others are investigating to see if it can be used to exclude Bangladesh from participating in UN peacekeeping forces.
Some people who previously were willing to wait decided against that in February when Shoaib was attacked in newspaper office by, among others, operatives of the ruling party. The fact that the government has refused to take action on Shoaib's complaint against his attackers -- who are known to the police -- further confirms the belief that the Awami League government might not be what it advertised itself as prior to the election. There is even some considered opinion that it is doing so at the expense of the Bangladeshi people, at the behest of one of its supporters who has a personal vendetta against Shoaib.
In a meeting at the Bangladeshi Embassy in Washington, Ambassador M. Humayun Kabir addressed Bangladesh's inability to gain favorable trade status in the US by asking me, "How can you hold up aid for 150 million people because of one man?"
"How can I? How can you?" I responded. "You're the ones prosecuting a case you have admitted to be false. You're the ones telling the rest of the world that you place the feelings of the radicals above your own laws. All you have to do is stop it. How can I? How can you do this to your people?"
For the past six months, Shoaib's defenders in and out of several governments, have taken a wait and see approach wondering if Bangladesh will defend its own legal integrity and stop this illicit prosecution or not. Many are beginning to believe that the Awami League government has already given them its answer.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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