Journalist Pushes On In Bangladesh Despite Harassment; His US Supporters Keep Faith With Him
by HEATHER ROBINSON
Journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, who was physically attacked and beaten in February by thugs he believes were members of the Bangladeshi government’s ruling party, has recovered from his injuries.
But this independent Bangladeshi journalist, whose groundbreaking reporting exposed the Islamist radicalization of children being funded by Saudi Arabia and other sources in Bangladesh’s schools, said this week he fears he is still being targeted by Islamist radicals whom he believes are tied to the government of Bangladesh.
On Thursday June 18, Choudhury reported via phone interview that unknown men continue to stake out his family’s home in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, asking neighbors questions about his schedule and for information about the driver of his car. This development is particularly concerning, he says, because such visits often are meant as threats in Bangladesh.
“I have learned to live in such situation of extreme adversity,” he says.
He adds that the unknown men, whom he suspects are either Islamist militants acting independently or members of Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, are telling his neighbors he is an Israeli spy.
The Bangladeshi government withdrew Choudhury’s security protection in May, 2008 and has not reinstated it, despite a congressional resolution, HR 64, passed in March, 2007, calling on Bangladesh to provide security protection to Choudhury, to cease harassment of him, and to drop all charges against him.
Bangladesh is prosecuting Choudhury despite admission by various officials that the charges against him are false, according to Choudhury and his American advocate and friend, Dr. Richard Benkin, a former DePaul University professor of sociology and human rights advocate.
Choudhury expressed outrage this week at the Bangladeshi government’s flouting of HR 64. He outlined the four points stipulated in the resolution-that the Bangladeshi government withdraw the charges; return property they seized from him; stop harassing him; and take initiative in protecting him-and noted Bangladesh has respected none. He suggested their refusal is a slap in the face to the U.S.
“Bangladesh thinks the resolution is nothing but a piece of paper, and the U.S. Congress has no power to do anything against any country that will ignore them,” he said.
Repeated phone calls to Bangladesh’s embassy in Washington requesting comment for this story were not returned.
In his journalism, Choudhury has exposed the indoctrination of Bangladeshi children into radical Islam, which he charges is funded by sources in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran. He explores this alleged phenomenon and alleges other instances of corruption in the madrassas of Bangladesh in his book, Inside Madrassa, set for release this year. He has advocated normalized relations between Bangladesh and Israel, as well as good relations among people of various religions, including Jews and Muslims. For his reporting and for attempting to travel to Israel to attend a conference, he has been charged by the Bangladeshi government with sedition, treason, and blasphemy, the first two of which can carry capital sentences in that country.
“My injuries were minor and they healed with the course of time,” said Choudhury, who is known to his friends as “Shoaib (pronounced “SHOW-Abe”), in a phone interview from Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, earlier this month. “I was injured many times…I don’t want to remember my injuries. I remember my mission. I would like to proceed.
“My case never ends; it hangs on my shoulder, and will finish the day I die, I know that. If I stop writing I have surrendered, and I never retreat, from anything.”
Various members of the Bangladeshi government have actually admitted the charges are false, according to Benkin.
“They only maintain the charges for fear of how the radicals would react if they dropped them,” said Benkin.
Choudhury, who publishes the independent newspaper The Weekly Blitz, was summoned to court on May 25 and made to stand on a dais in a room without air conditioning for several hours, and not permitted to sit. This marked the 50th time he has been called to court and forced to stand for sometimes up to eight hours over the past four years, and reflects the Bangladeshi government’s effort to harass him, according to Choudhury and Benkin.
As threats and prosecution against Choudhury continue, Benkin remains vigilant in championing the rights of this independent journalist.
“For a long time, we were used to seeing dramatic events happening; at this point it has settled into a Kafkaesque holding pattern with no end in sight,” said Benkin. “The Bangladeshi government has made the process the punishment.”
Choudhury’s ordeal began in 2003, when he was arrested on his way to visit Israel. The government held him for 17 months and tortured him. They also denied him medication for treatment of his glaucoma, which worsened during his incarceration. The efforts of Benkin and Congressman Mark Kirk (R-Ill) resulted in Choudhury’s release in 2005. He and his staff were violently attacked several times subsequently by thugs thought to be members of the government, which at that time was center-right. In March, 2008, Choudhury was abducted at gunpoint by the Rapid Action Battalion (R.A.B.), a paramilitary wing of the government.
Thugs believed to be members of the current, left wing Awami government carried out the most recent attack in February, according to Choudhury. Benkin points out that, while the government in Bangladesh has changed several times since 2003, the one constant has been the “knowingly false persecution of Shoaib as well as their intense persecution of minorities.”
After Choudhury was abducted in 2008, Benkin quickly sprung into action, notifying the Bangladeshi embassy that he was going to make numerous members of Congress aware of Choudhury’s abduction.
He then notified the offices of several members of Congress, including Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill), Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), and Rep. Steven Rothman (D-NJ). All helped, and Kirk in particular has been a “great champion” of this independent journalist’s rights, according to Benkin.
“The people [the R.A.B.] take disappear, and we weren’t going to let him disappear,” said Benkin. Benkin says he and members of Congress who care will not cease their vigilant watch over Choudhury.
“The lack of rule of law in Bangladesh with regard to this case forces us to be on the lookout continually and always respond [when something happens],” said Benkin.
Benkin emphasizes that support for Choudhury in the U.S. Congress is bipartisan, citing passage of HR 64 calling on the Bangladeshi government to drop all charges and end harassment of Choudhury.
In January, 10 members of Congress sent a letter to the new Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, congratulating her on her landslide victory and that of the left-leaning Awami League, and encouraging her to drop the false charges against Choudhury.
Signatories included Rothman, a moderate democrat; Kirk, moderate republican; Franks, a conservative Republican; and Schwartz, a liberal Democrat.
“This is not a matter of conservative or liberal, it’s a matter of justice to which people of all political stripes should be committed,” said Benkin.
“Everything about this has smacked of bipartisanship. This about basic values all of us share.”
However, the Bangladeshi government has yet to drop the charges against Choudhury, and the latest beating, in February, took place at the hands of thugs thought to be connected with the new Awami League government.
Benkin points out that concern for the life of one man is of importance in and of itself, and also because of what it reflects about treatment of other persecuted minorities in Bangladesh. He says people can contact their members of Congress to express solidarity with Choudhury and ask for Bangladesh to show greater respect for minorities.
“If we allow persecution of dissidents, we’re certainly allowing persecution of minorities,” said Benkin. “Primarily Hindus, also Christians and Buddhists and indigenous peoples.
“Shoaib is frustrated and angry, but he keeps on going. He never stops publishing his paper and we’ve got to do the same for him.
“How terrible for him if he were to keep writing what he’s writing, under threats he’s under and for us to say, ‘Oh, it’s too much trouble to stay on this.’ It’s the least we can do to make sure he knows he isn’t forgotten and we are keeping faith with him.”