Saturday, October 14, 2006

Update: Salah Choudhoury

[Posted by reader_iam]

Time is running out for Mr. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, the Muslim Bangladeshi journalist about whom I've blogged previously.

For those needing some background, here is the start of a Wall Street Journal piece from a few days ago:
Meet Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. As these lines are being written, Mr. Choudhury, a gadfly Bangladeshi journalist, is running for his life. Assuming he survives till Thursday, he will face charges of blasphemy, sedition, treason and espionage in a Dhaka courtroom. His crime is to have tried to attend a writers' Hconference in Tel Aviv on how the media can foster world peace. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Welcome to Bangladesh, a country the State Department's Richard Boucher recently portrayed in congressional testimony as "a traditionally moderate and tolerant country" that shares America's "commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law." That's an interesting way to describe a country that is regularly ranked as the world's most corrupt by Transparency International and whose governing coalition, in addition to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, includes two fundamentalist Islamic parties that advocate the imposition of Shariah law. There are an estimated 64,000 madrassas (religious schools) in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Industries is in the hands of Motiur Rahman Nizami, a radical Islamist with a reputation of a violent past. In March the Peace Corps was forced to leave the country for fear of terrorist attacks. Seven other journalists have also been brought up on sedition charges by Ms. Zia's government, most of them for attempting to document Bangladesh's repression of religious minorities.

I just about choked when I saw what the (in this particular context) aptly named Mr. Boucher said with regard to Bangladesh. But I won't let myself get deflected here, except to say that I refuse to believe that our state department officials are unaware of the history of Bangladesh, and Pakistan, for that matter, since their establishment and the unholy ties that even some of their personally more secular historical leaders have had with radical, fundamentalist Islam, at least in terms of exploiting the latter for political control and gain.

Back to Salah Choudhury, whose situation has gotten progressively more dire (see bolded portion):
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 [ADDED: Oct. 5] 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. Now he's on the run, fearing torture or worse if he's taken into custody.

In my original post, I remarked on the paucity of attention being paid by news and other organizations and outlets with regard to Choudhury's situation. Since that time period, there has been a bit of scattered interest here and there, but not enough, in my estimation, to command the attention of the Bangladesh government. The WSJ article addresses this:
...The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka has kept track of Mr. Choudhury and plans to send an observer to his trial. But mainly America's diplomats seem to have treated him as a nuisance. "Their thinking," says a source familiar with the case, "is that this is the story of one man, and why should the U.S. base its entire relationship with Bangladesh on this one man?"

Here's an answer: Bangladesh does not mean much strategically to the U.S., except for the fact that it is home to some 120 million Muslims, many of them desperately poor and increasingly under the sway of violent religious notions imported from Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration, which every year spends some $64 million on Bangladesh, has made a priority of identifying moderate Muslims and giving them the space and cover they need to spread their ideas. Mr. Choudhury has identified himself, at huge personal risk, as one such Muslim. Now that he is on the run, somewhere in the darkness of Dhaka, will someone in the administration pick up the phone and explain to the Bangladeshis just what America expects of its "moderate and tolerant" friends?

Is this truly only the story of "this one man"?

Well, certainly we are short on details. But in poking around this morning as I prepared to catch up on Choudhury's situation, I found this article in the Asian Times, which outlet, along with the Jerusalem Post, were the only two (that I found, anyway, at the time) to have covered the ordering of Choudhury to trial. It's mostly a reprinting of what the WSJ wrote, but there was also this:
Asian Tribune perused through the March 2006 released U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Right Practices for 2005 and found this in the Bangladesh section which gives a dismal picture of that government’s treatment of the free press and freedom of expression: "Attacks on journalists and newspapers, and government efforts to intimidate them, political party activists, and others, occurred frequently. Attacks against journalists by political activists were common during times of political violence, and some journalists were injured in police actions. According to a local human rights organization, 142 journalists were injured, 2 killed, 11 arrested, 4 kidnapped, 53 assaulted, and 249 threatened during the year 2005."

Hmmm. What a nuisance.