Friday, November 10, 2006

Interview with Salah Choudhury (New York Sun)

The New York Sun has just published a telephone interview with the Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury.

[For some further background information, see
·Freedom of the press under attack - Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury faces the death penalty
·Muslim moderate journalist Salah Choudhury faces death (Ami Isseroff)
·Good news & bad news from Bangladesh - Mohammad Yunus & Salah Choudhury
· Eric Alterman - "And how about a little noise about Salah Choudhury?"
· "Two faces of persecution" - Salah Choudhury & Maher Arar (Terry Glavin).]

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN and others have urged everyone concerned with protecting freedom of expression to take action on his behalf. For some information on how to do so, see here & here & here.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
New York Sun
November 10, 2006
An Interview with With Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury: Will America Act to Save One Courageous Man's Life?

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is remarkably calm for someone facing death. I sat for a few minutes in a state of near shock after our conversation earlier today ended with him politely thanking me for my time and telling me that "I hope that people in the world will stand with us against radical Islamists. We can be free together and secure the world for future generations." He spoke from Dhaka, Bangladesh, where on Monday he goes on trial for his life on counts of sedition, treason, and blasphemy.

Mr. Choudhury, a Bangladeshi journalist, is accused, he told us, of "praising Jews and Christians," "spying for Israel," and being "an agent of the Mossad" -- because he advocated relations between Israel and Bangladesh. He's also accused of being critical of Islamic radicals, which is considered blasphemy. He committed these crimes by writing articles favorable toward Jews and Christians.

He did so, he says, because while he was born and raised in a Muslim country (Bangladesh) where he was taught a "religion of hatred" and a "religion of Jihad," his father "told from an early age not to listen and to learn for himself." He did and became friends with Jews, realized the lies he had been taught, and wanted to end "the culture of hatred." He says that if "Muslim countries want peace they need relations with Israel."

Mr. Choudhury says he holds no hope of getting a fair trial. The judge, he says, is a radical Islamist who has already made clear his view that Mr. Choudhury is guilty. "In open court ... he made comments that by praising Christians and Jews I have hurt the sentiment of Muslims ... which is a crime," the journalist says. Other comments made by the Judge have made it clear, Mr. Choudhury tells me, that the judge's goal is a conviction and a death sentence. Mr. Choudhury describes his judge as a "one man judge and jury," and Mr. Choudhury cannot even present witnesses in his own defense.

Why hasn't Mr. Choudhury fled Bangladesh despite having had the opportunity? Because, he says, "if I leave I will be proved to be a coward ... I want to fight the matter to the last." Many of Mr. Choudhury's colleagues have fled the country, but Mr. Choudhury, a practicing Muslim, wants to live free in his own country and beat the case set against him. "There is no pride, no honor, and no dignity in retreating," he says.

Mr. Choudhury's pre-trial run hasn't been easy. He spent 17 months between 2003 and 2005 in prison without trial. Just this year he's been attacked twice. In July, his office was bombed and in October he was assailed in person. Both times the police did nothing. But he has received support from some quarters of Bangladeshi society. The "Bangladeshi lawyers minority association" has been especially supportive. He said there are "many good Muslims who are silently expressing solidarity" but they fear repercussions from the radicals.

Richard L. Benkin is a Chicago-based analyst who introduced us to Mr. Choudhury. Mr. Benkin's friendship with Mr. Choudhury began in 2003, before Mr. Choudhury's ordeal started. Mr. Benkin says Mr. Choudhury wrote him an e-mail in response to some online articles he'd written about Israel "which essentially said 'my country gets biased and incomplete information about Jews and Israel' I know there is more, can you help?'" Mr. Benkin recalls.

Mr. Benkin decided that to "such a cry for help there is only one response." After Mr. Choudhury was arrested in 2003, Mr. Choudhury's younger brother called Mr. Benkin to ask if he could help. Mr. Benkin says that moment changed his life, as Mr. Choudhury's case became what Mr. Benkin describes as his "obsession." "We're talking abut a man's life and a courageous individual standing up for what is right."

Mr. Choudhury's case may be relatively unfamiliar to most Americans, aside from a recent column by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. But Mr. Choudhury does have some American allies. Mr. Benkin reports that Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) has been "fantastic." Mr. Kirk demanded a meeting with the Bangladeshi ambassador to America in 2005 and three weeks later Mr. Choudhury was freed-- after his 17 months in jail without trial. The ambassador admitted to them, Mr. Benkin says, that the charges were false. The Bangladeshi government promised the charges would be dropped, but they never were. The government feared, Mr. Benkin says, the reaction of radical Islamists who were coalition partners.

There is hope, Mr. Benkin says, if America takes action. While the trial is prejudged and Mr. Choudhury will be given a death sentence, the president of the country can drop the charges if the national interest is at stake. And here's where America comes in. America gives Bangladesh $63 million a year. The American people and government might begin to question what we're getting for our investment.

If the threat of reconsideration of that aid allotment isn't enough, 70% of Bangladeshi garment exports are to America. The economy is totally dependent on the garment industry. If America threatens to block Bangladeshi imports and switch, say, to Indian products unless Mr. Choudhury is freed, that could have quite an effect, Mr. Benkin suggests.

At several points during the conversation with Mr. Choudhury the phone got cut off and we had to switch numbers. Mr. Benkin warned that the Bangladeshi government was probably listening. When I asked Mr. Choudhury if he was worried, he replied, "maybe someone is listening but it doesn't matter."

And that, in a sense, sums up Mr. Choudhury. Why he printed articles knowing the likely anger it would provoke, why he hasn't fled Bangladesh, why he can stare death in the eye and not be concerned that he may be killed, and why he didn't care what the government heard him say. It's because when you're fighting for the truth and justice, nothing else matters.

When asked what the free world can do to help him, Mr. Choudhury replies, "The more international voices" protesting the case, the better. "We can fight together and we will win." Mr. Choudhury is a man in the mold of such heroes of freedom as Vaclac Havel and Lech Walesa.

The question for the American government and people is, will we stand up for him?
---------------
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Journalist, Columnist, Author & Peace Activist
PENUSA Freedom to Write Award 2005, AJC Moral Courage Award 2006
Editor & Publisher, Weekly Blitz
Chief Editor, Weekly Jamjamat
Web: www.weeklyblitz.net Web: www.interfaithstrength.com

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