Thursday, October 19, 2006

Freedom of the press under attack - Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury faces the death penalty

This is not just a tale of woe, but also a call to action. Over the past decade there have been several significant cases involving the persecution, arrest, and/or or prosecution of writers and intellectuals where international attention has helped to avert, or at least moderate, unjust and repressive outcomes. Some obvious examples include Said Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt, Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, Ramin Jahanbegloo in Iran (where the outcome was far from ideal, but a lot better than it could have been), Kamal Sayid Qadir in Iraqi Kurdistan, etc. International response to these cases, and international solidarity with the victims, are obviously very important to help preserve some space for freedom of expression and to encourage possibilities for political liberty and political sanity.

The case of the outspoken Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, now on trial facing a trumped-up charge of treason with a possible death penalty, is another important challenge of this sort. Bangladesh is generally considered a relatively "moderate" Muslim country, but it is also one in which radical Islamist parties and movements are gaining increasing influence. One sign of these tendencies is the increasingly precarious position of independent journalists, epitomized by the treatment of Choudhury. He has faced years of persecution, including physical attacks and death threats as well as criminal prosecution, for his 'crimes' of criticizing Islamist radicalism and advocating reconciliation with Christians, Jews, and Israel.

The main outlines of this alarming story were summed up in a recent Wall Street Journal article by Bret Stephens, "Darkness in Dhaka":
"When I began my newspaper [the Weekly Blitz] in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel," he says in the first of several telephone interviews in recent days. "In Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the world's realities."

With that in mind, Mr. Choudhury, then 38, began publishing articles sympathetic to Israel in the Weekly Blitz while reaching out to Jewish and Israeli writers he encountered on the Web. That led to the invitation by the Hebrew Writers' Association, and to Mr. Choudhury's only crime: By attempting to travel to Israel in November 2003, he violated the Passport Act, which forbids citizens from visiting countries (such as Israel and Taiwan) with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations. Violations of the Passport Act are usually punishable by a fine of $8.

But that wasn't the sentence meted to Mr. Choudhury. Following his arrest he was taken into police custody and, as he tells it, blindfolded, beaten and interrogated almost incessantly for 10 days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was spying for Israel. He refused to offer one. He spent the next 16 months in solitary confinement in a Dhaka jail, where he was denied medical treatment for his glaucoma. [....]

[Choudhury was eventually released on bail, in part because of the international attention his case had received. --JW] In July, the offices of the Weekly Blitz were bombed by Islamic militants. In September, a judge with Islamist ties ordered the case continued, despite the government's reluctance to prosecute, on the grounds that Mr. Choudhury had hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and spoiling the image of Bangladesh world-wide. Last week, the police detail that had been posted to the Blitz's offices since the July bombing mysteriously vanished. The next day the offices were ransacked and Mr. Choudhury was badly beaten by a mob of 40 or so people. Over the weekend he lodged a formal complaint with the police, who responded by issuing an arrest warrant for him.
At the time of Choudhury's arrest in 2003, a New York Times editorial ("The Risks of Journalism in Bangladesh") had this to say:
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a Muslim editor and commentator in Bangladesh, has a rare virtue — he champions dialogue and decency in a culture hemmed in by extremism and corruption. When his weekly newspaper, Blitz, published articles favorable to Israel, it was blacklisted by various companies. Some people demanded that the paper be banned. Mr. Choudhury was thrown out of a private television company.

But all of this pales compared with what happened last month. As he boarded a flight in Dhaka, the capital, on his way to a writers' conference in Tel Aviv, Mr. Choudhury was arrested by security personnel, accused of being a spy and thrown in prison. The charges are a baseless sham. The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières have vigorously condemned his arrest. Governments, including Washington, need to demand his release.

The Tel Aviv meeting Mr. Choudhury was planning to attend was called "Bridges Through Culture" and the lecture he hoped to deliver concerned the role of the media in establishing peace. Mr. Choudhury, who was going to open a Bangladeshi branch of a group called the International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace, would have been the first journalist from Bangladesh to speak publicly in Israel.

Mr. Choudhury's mistreatment is not occurring in a vacuum. Muslim extremism is growing in Bangladesh. Moreover, violence against journalists who stand up to the ruling party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has been increasing, especially in the south and especially for those exposing links between politicians and organized crime. On Dec. 4, a correspondent for a southern regional daily was beaten and stabbed by members of the party's youth wing after publication of an article critical of a key local politician.

On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontières sent letters to Khaleda Zia, the prime minister of Bangladesh, expressing grave concern over these developments. Their alarm is quite justified. Bangladesh may now be among the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. That makes Mr. Choudhury's courageous stand for Muslim-Jewish dialogue all the more admirable — and vital to defend.

=> Choudhury was awarded the PEN-USA Freedom to Write Award in 2005, and his cause has been taken up by Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN. Their statement of October 10 (reproduced below) urges that everyone committed to freedom of expression should:
Send appeals to authorities:
- expressing serious concerns for the safety of journalist Salah Uddin Choudhury
- calling for him to be provided with immediate and effective police protection
- protesting the charges against Choudhury and calling for them to be dropped in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
=> For some further information and appeals, see these posts by Norman Geras (Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury), Terry Glavin (Bangladeshi Brother Needs Our Help: Here's How & Choudhury: "My fate is in extreme dark now. . ."), Ophelia Benson (Friends in Bangladesh, Meet Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, & PEN has Concern for the Safety of Choudhury), Ami Isseroff (Courageous journalist Salah Choudhury may face death sentence), and Richard Benkin (Interfaith Strength).

=> However, this case is still not getting nearly the attention that it deserves. It seems to me that Choudhury's cause is one that all people who support the principles of political and intellectual freedom and who would like to defend possibilities for democracy, political sanity, and constructive international dialogue should be especially interested in taking up. And the reasons go beyond the obvious threat to freedom of the press and free expression that this case represents, though these should be sufficient. Journalists in the Muslim world who are willing to stick their necks out to take positions like Choudhury's are not entirely non-existent, but they're not very numerous either, and they take especially great risks when they do this. If they're going to get their necks cut off for it, then all of us will be losers. They deserve strong and principled support.

Ami Isseroff, who has been following this case closely, noted that that Choudhury hasn't exactly gone of his way to be discreet or circumspect. Instead, he's been open and honest to a degree that could be called reckless or courageous (or both). These qualities may have helped to get him into trouble, but that's all the more reason why he deserves solidarity and support from those of us who can say whatever we want without taking those risks. The whole point of freedom of the press is that it allows some people to upset public opinion and the powers-that-be by being more recklessly honest and courageous than the rest of us. Without a few such people, having freedom of the press formally on the books isn't enough.

Also, from what I know, Bangladesh is the sort of country in where a broad-based international condemnation of Choudhury's persecution, based on a principled commitment to freedom of the press and free expression, could have a real and helpful effect.

=> Therefore, along with International PEN and others, I strongly urge people to spread the word about this case and to write to the Bangladeshi govenment expressing their concern.

Letters to Bangladeshi authorities (which should be polite and not abusive) can be sent to the following:

Mr. Md. Lutfozzaman Babar
State Minister for Home Affairs
Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh
Fax: 880-2-7171611

Professor Dr. Iajuddin Ahmed
President of the People's Republic of Bangladesh
Banga Bhaban
Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh
Fax: 880-2-9566593

Mr. Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury
Ambassador of Bangladesh
3510 International Drive NW
Washington, DC 20008 (USA)
Email: bdootwash@bangladoot.org | smchowdhury@hotmail.com
Fax: 202-244-7830 & 202-244-2771

Bangladesh Consulate in New York
Fax: 212-682-9211

Here are some sample letters I have borrowed from Ami Isseroff (along with most of the addresses): These may or may not suit particular people's tastes, but I offer them for possible interest.
Your excellency,
I am greatly distressed to learn of the trial of award-winning journalist Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury for sedition and other false charges. Mr. Choudhury has done nothing more than pursue his job as a journalist and his duty as a citizen. In addition to legal procedings, he has been beaten and robbed and denied police protection. I request your urgent intervention to stop this nightmare travesty of justice, which is harming the image of Bangladesh around the world.
Letters to officials in your own country should explain the case and press for action to protect Choudhury. Here is another sample letter:
Dear XXX,
This is to request your urgent intervention to help save the life of award-winning Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. He has endured three years of beatings, jailings, and death threats for his outspoken stands against Islamist extremism and in favor of reconciliation with Christians, Jews, and Israel. He is now on trial for sedition and other false charges with a possible death penalty.
Over the past several years, Choudhury's case has been the subject of editorials in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as protests by International PEN, Reporters Without Frontiers, and other organizations. Previous appeals from international public opinion and the US Congress helped bring him a reprieve, but the Bangladesh government has now re-opened his prosecution. Without help from you and other influential voices, Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury may die.
For addresses in Canada, see this information provided by Terry Glavin.

US officials
US Embassy in Bangladesh
Madani Avenue, Baridhara
Dhaka 1212, Bangladesh
Tel: 880-2-885-5500 Fax: 880-2-8823744

US Senators:
Go to www.senate.gov
Click on "find your senators" in the top right corner.
US Congresspersons: Go to www.house.gov
Enter your zip code near the top in "find your representative"

Human rights groups

Amnesty International

Human Rights Watch:
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor
New York, NY 10118-3299
USA
Tel: 1-212-290-4700,
Fax: 1-212-736-1300
hrwnyc@hrw.org
OR
1630 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 500 Washington, DC 20009 USA
Tel: 1-202-612-4321, Fax: 1-202-612-4333
hrwdc@hrw.org

Yours for freedom of expression and democratic solidarity,
Jeff Weintraub
====================
International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX)

Controversial journalist attaced in office raid
Country/Topic: Bangladesh
Date: 10 October 2006
Source: Writers in Prison Committee, International PEN
Person(s): Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Target(s): editor(s)
Type(s) of violation(s): attacked

Urgency: Flash

(WiPC/IFEX) - The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN is seriously concerned for the safety of journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, who was reportedly attacked by a group of about 30 men at the offices of his newspaper, "Blitz", on 5 October 2006. His attackers are thought to have included leading members of the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Choudhury was reportedly badly beaten in the attack, and around 400,000 Taka (approx. US$4,000) and several cell phones were taken from the "Blitz" office.

Choudhury is facing sedition charges for his alleged association with Israel and his criticism of the spread of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh. The charge carries a maximum penalty of death or 30 years' imprisonment. His trial is due to start on 12 October.

WiPC calls upon the Bangladeshi authorities to provide Choudhury with effective police protection immediately. WiPC protests the charges against Choudhury and urges that they be dropped in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to information obtained by WiPC, Choudhury, editor of the tabloid weekly "Blitz", was arrested by security personnel at Zia International Airport, Dhaka, on 29 November 2003, en route to Israel to participate in a conference with the Hebrew Writers Association. Choudhury was planning to address a writers' symposium in Tel Aviv entitled "Bridges through Culture", and was scheduled to speak about "the role of media in establishing peace." Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and travel to Israel is illegal for Bangladeshi citizens. Intelligence forces claim that documents found in Choudhury's briefcase, in particular the text of his speech and reports on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, provide evidence to support the charges against him. He is accused of having links to an Israeli intelligence agency and is said to have been under surveillance for several months.

Choudhury is known for his work to improve relations between Muslim countries and Israel, and has written articles against anti-Israeli attitudes in Muslim countries and about the rise of al-Qaeda in Bangladesh, an issue which had sparked debate in the Bangladeshi press and in government prior to his arrest. He was repeatedly denied a bail hearing before being released on bail on 2 May 2005, following appeals by PEN USA, of which he is an honorary member.

On 26 February 2006, Choudhury reportedly received a death threat from a militant Islamist leader for his writings, and the offices of his newspaper were bombed in July.

WiPC continues to be alarmed at the pattern of violence against journalists in Bangladesh, who are frequently threatened and attacked with apparent impunity solely for the practice of their profession.

RECOMMENDED ACTION:

Send appeals to authorities:
- expressing serious concerns for the safety of journalist Salah Uddin Choudhury
- calling for him to be provided with immediate and effective police protection
- protesting the charges against Choudhury and calling for them to be dropped in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

APPEALS TO: [For addressed to which to sent appeals, see above. --JW]

MORE INFORMATION:
For further information, contact Cathy McCann at the WiPC, International PEN, Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6ER, U.K., tel: +44 207 405 0338, fax: +44 207 405 0339, e-mail: cathy.mccann@internationalpen.org.uk; Internet: http://www.internationalpen.org.uk

**Updates IFEX alert of 12 and 7 July, 3 March and 27 February 2006, 27 and 3 May and 23 February 2005 and others; please note that in previous alerts, the journalist's name is sometimes spelled "Choudhury"**

PREVIOUS ALERT(S):

- RSF condemns authorities' failure to respond to death threats prior to bombing of independent weekly
- Office of controversial magazine "Weekly Blitz" bombed
- Editor awaiting sedition trial receives death threat, health deteriorates
- Journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Chaudhury to stand trial for sedition
- CPJ calls for charges against Bangladeshi journalist to be dropped
- Journalist released on bail after 17 months behind bars but concern for his safety remains
- Authorities proceed in sedition case against journalist

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