[Comments are welcome at our Dialogue Corner]
A Ray of Hope
People following the case of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, the Muslim journalist imprisoned in Bangladesh for his views urging interfaith understanding and dialogue and his condemnation of terrorism, know that I am committed passionately to his release and redemption. For the past 17 months, I have devoted a substantial portion of my time and resources, my heart and soul to seeing this brave man free and safe.
At times, the fight has seemed a lonely one. At times, outrage overwhelms everything else. At times, the pain of what is happening to my friend and his family afflict me as well. Sometimes, I wonder if all the effort has done anything of value since my friend remains behind bars—in poor health, without due process, his family on the verge of financial ruin; his fellow citizens still deprived of the unbiased news and information we sought to bring them. But April brought us the first real glimmers of hope. Are they the first steps that will free this courageous man?
For two days, I stalked the halls of Congress and the State Department in Washington, trying to win support for my efforts and to make legislators aware of the tragedy is befalling Shoaib and other courageous individuals throughout the Muslim world—individuals who say "No!" to hatred, "No!" to jihad, "No!" to holocaust-denial, and "No!" to terrorists that threaten their lives. Democrats and Republicans alike, who can hardly agree on anything these days, agreed that Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an individual deprived of his rights, and rightly should be freed.
But that was merely the opening act for a meeting the following day, called by Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) with Bangladeshi Ambassador, Shamsher Chowdhury. Kirk, an experienced human rights advocate, called the meeting because he wanted to go beyond words to help rectify this injustice.
Being neither bellicose nor threatening, Kirk firmly addressed Bangaldesh's very troubling record on this case—violations of Bangladesh's own legal procedures, the extra-judicial, illegal harm done to the Choudhury family with no action taken to stop it or punish the perpetrators, and the violation of international human rights standards.
Ambassador Chowdhury proved a respectful and receptive listener, although it seemed that he had not been given all the facts in the case. When, for instance, he asserted that Shoaib was receiving medical care in accordance with Bangladeshi law, we informed him that this was not the case. This past week, in fact, Shoaib's wife returned from the prison almost in tears. He had lost so much weight and was in such poor health that she could hardly recognize him. We have further evidence that he suffers from severe skin diseases due to the prison's unsanitary conditions and is almost without sight in one eye due to his untreated glaucoma. These conditions persist despite orders by Bangladesh's High Court that Shoaib be given the medical care he so desperately needs.
Ambassador Chowdhury also stated that the case had nothing to do with Shoaib's planned travel to Israel, his views, or his professional activities. He said it was a "purely internal" financial dispute. While it was certainly a positive move when the Ambassador announced that henceforth Bangladeshis were free to travel to Israel (one pretext for Shoaib's arrest), none of this could explain the almost 17-month incarceration and brutality faced by Shoaib—despite a government investigation noting that there was "nothing bad in the character of the accused."
The Bangladeshi ambassador promised to address these matters immediately with his government and not let them linger. And in fact, the embassy did inform us a few days hence that the matters were being given the highest priority in Dhaka. Moreover, we have been made to understand that the Bangladeshi government might be looking at some humanitarian gesture to help with Shoaib's deteriorating health.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this April Dialogue and how it might finally bring an end to this tragic situation. Even beyond that, the Ambassador's humanity and receptiveness holds open the possibility that we will see ascendant the very values for which Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury was working—interfaith understanding, free and open information for his people. As his brother, Sohail, told me recently, "Bangladeshis are good people. At least 95 percent of us believe in respecting all faiths and all peoples."
Of course, we are judged ultimately by our actions. The words are encouraging, but we also know that previous government promises have meant little, deflating Shoaib and his family time and again. Are things different this time? Will my friend be freed, recompensed, and made safe? If the government acts promptly to provide the medical care he needs to prevent further deterioration, it will be a significant humanitarian gesture, and will hold out hope that this human rights tragedy will end. That will reflect the integrity of both Congressman Kirk and Ambassador Chowdhury, and help rehabilitate Bangladesh's reputation. It will also be a captive redeemed.
Dr. Richard Benkin, 14/April/2005