Sunday, March 04, 2007

Please sign this petition in support of Salah Choudhury

Back in October 2006, in my first discussion of the case of Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury (Freedom of the press under attack - Bangladeshi journalist Salah Choudhury faces the death penalty), I emphasized that
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. [....]

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
All of this still applies. The legal proceedings against Choudhury continue to grind on, but in the meantime his case has attracted increasing attention around the world.

On December 26, 2006 the prominent international human rights lawyer and Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada during the last Liberal government, argued that
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is not a household name. But he should be - and his case is becoming - a cause celebre. For this courageous Bangladesh journalist and human-rights defender is about to stand trial on the charges of sedition, treason and blasphemy, offences possibly punishable by the death penalty.

His crime? Promoting inter-faith dialogue among Muslims, Jews and Christians, seeking peaceful relations with Israel, and expressing concerns about extremist radical Islam. [....]

It is not Choudhury who should be on trial; rather, it is the Bangladesh authorities who have violated his fundamental rights guaranteed under the Bangladesh constitution, international treaties as well as the basic principles of criminal justice [....]

At the time of Choudhury’s first arrest in 2003, a New York Times editorial characterized him as having "a rare virtue - he champions dialogue and decency in a culture hemmed in by extremism and corruption." The charges against Choudhury, said the New York Times editorial, are a "baseless sham." It went on to say, after describing the plight of journalists in Bangladesh: "Bangladesh may now be among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. That makes Choudhury’s courageous stand for Muslim-Jewish dialogue all the more admirable - and vital to defend."

Three years later, Choudhury faces possible death from this "baseless sham." It is vital now to defend Choudhury’s rights as we defend the courageous stand that brought about his ordeal.
All of you who want to help defend Salah Choudhury and the principles he represents--not least the most basic principles of freedom of the press and free expression--have an opportunity to do so by signing a petition on his behalf being circulated by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. In my opinion, the appeal to the Bangladeshi government outlined here is right on target. Please read it (below) and add your signature.

--Jeff Weintraub

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Scholars For Peace in the Middle East

A Petition to Government of Bangladesh to Free and Drop All Charges of Sedition Against Muslim Journalist Salah Choudhury

To: Government of Bangladesh

We, the undersigned scholars and other individuals of good will, petition the Government of Bangladesh to drop all charges against Muslim journalist Salah Choudhury. We understand that he faces charges under the Bangladesh Penal Code of "sedition, treason, blasphemy and espionage," which are punishable by death.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is editor of the Bangladeshi tabloid The Weekly Blitz. A practicing Muslim, Choudhury wrote about the rise of Islamist extremists in Bangladesh and has written articles against anti-Israeli and Judeophobic attitudes in Muslim-majority countries. He also urged Bangladesh-Israel relations and real interaith understanding based on religious equality.

PEN USA gave him their Freedom to Write Award in 2005 in recognition of his commitment towards courageous journalism and confronting extreme adversities.[4]

The American Jewish Committee presented its Moral Courage Award to him in May 2006, but the Bangladesh government prevented him from visiting the United States to receive the honor.

Choudhury is facing these charges for taking strong public and professional stands against the radical Islamists who are quietly taking over the world's third largest Muslim-majority country, against the oppression of religious minorities and others there, and for positive relations between Muslims and Jews. His one formal violation of Bangladesh regulations was his attempt to visit Israel in 2003 to attend a conference of the Hebrew Writers' Association. The applicable act allows Bangladeshis to travel to all countries in the world except Israel. The penalty for such violation is a 500 Taka (less than $8). On November 29, he was taken into police custody and, as he tells it, blindfolded, beaten and interrogated for 10 days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was spying for Israel. He spent the next 17 months in solitary confinement, and was denied medical treatment for his glaucoma. Only after an international campaign and the personal intervention of U.S. Congressman Mark Kirk did the Bangladesh govenment release Choudhury on bail. At the same time, the Bangladesh government promised to drop all charges against him after admitting that there was no substance to them.

In July, a mob stormed the premises of Choudhury's tabloid and beat him, fracturing his ankle.When Choudhury lodged a complaint with the police, the government responded by issuing a warrant for his arrest. That summer, a bomb was also set off at the Weekly Blitz offices and although government officials admitted knowing the perpetrators led by Mufti Noor Hussain Noorani, self-proclaimed bigot and head of the radical Khatmey Nabuat Movement, no arrests were ever made.

In September, a judge affiliated with a radical faction ordered the case continued, in spite of the government's reluctance to prosecute, proclaiming that "by praising Christians and Jews," Choudhury had "hurt the sentiments of Muslims."

The United States, the European Union, and other democratic nations have sent observers to his trial. Government witnesses have refused to show in court, the court has violated Bangaldeshi legal procedure, and the prosecution has yet to provide a scintilla of credible evidence to support the capital charge. The new government in Dhaka has promised several American officials and others that they will have the case dropped. Yet, on February 28, 2007, the radical judge brazenly ordered the trial to proceed.

Resolutions in support of Choudhury and demands that the charges be dropped have been passed in the European and Australian Parliaments. A similar resolution passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously and is scheduled to come before the full House this month where it is expected to pass without opposition.

Noted international Human Rights attorney Irwin Cotler, whose clients have included Nelson Mandela and Andrei Sakharov, has identified eight violations of Bangladesh's own law in Choudhury's prosecution. The only way to restore the integrity of Bangladesh is to end this persecution now. In the name of justice, freedom of speech, freedom of passage and of human rights, we join with governments, human rights advocates and other scholars worldwide and ask that this injustice be immediately halted and that all charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury be dropped.

[We urge each of you who sign this petition and even those of you who don't to circulate it amongst your colleagues and friends to help us reach 10,000 names by April 1, 2007. Thank you from Scholars for Peace in the Middle East www.spme.net.]

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

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