Journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury never set out to be a cause. Reared in a Muslim society, he received a worldview that demonized the Jewish State and the Jewish people. He even worked for a time at an Islamist-backed paper, Daily Inquilab. But he ultimately challenged that view and saw how much Jews, Muslims, and Christians share. He recognized the unjust treatment of Israel and the one-sided media portrayals, which were deceiving the people of Bangladesh.
So, he took action, publishing articles urging Bangladesh to recognize Israel, condemning rising fundamentalism in Bangladesh and biased reporting on Israel and Jews. He helped others, including this author, publish pro-Israeli articles there, sparking debate in the nation's press and government. On November 29, as he prepared to board a plane for an historic Tel Aviv address on the media and peace, Choudhury was taken by police and held for questioning. The pending charge: spying for "the interests of Israel against the interests of Bangladesh." Police raided his home and office, seizing his computers, disks, and other files. On their heels came a mob that sacked the premises with impunity.
A bizarre public vilification program ensued. Through selective government leaks, innuendo and outright falsehoods, Choudhury was accused variously of being a Mossad agent and a Muslim fundamentalist, a homosexual and a womanizer, a committed Zionist and an opportunist seeking personal gain. His family was threatened and pressured to denounce him. His brother and principal spokesman, Sohail, was attacked and twice had to flee the capital. Police refused to record the attacks blaming the Choudhurys for their "alliance with the Jews."
Hauled into court more than half dozen times, Choudhury was re-interned for "interrogation." After almost two months, the government charged him with sedition, a capital offense. A later charge (violating Bangladesh's passport law, which outlaws travel to Israel) was dropped because Choudhury has been incarcerated far longer than its maximum penalty, and he is not worried about the sedition charge. There is no substance to it and the government has admitted as much and has not offered any evidence for it. The problem is that Bangladesh lower courts are notoriously corrupt and subject to the ascendant political forces of the moment.
On August 21, 2004, the Bangladesh High Court rejected Choudhury's plea for bail. This sent him back to his captors with no date set for further hearings, no further avenues of appeal, no legal means of freedom or even due process. The court's reason for denying bail was that the matter was "under investigation." Under investigation? There is nothing to this matter or the charge. Any matter worth investigating was dispatched months ago. The ruling is a transparent effort to silence any independent thought or free expression that dares suggest dialogue among Jews and Muslims and legitimacy for the State of Israel.
And so Choudhury languishes in prison, where fellow inmates call him "friend of Israel." A practicing Muslim, he is confident that God will vindicate him. "Captivity inside the cell," he writes, "is making me much stronger spiritually. I can see the lights of my goal during my prayers and meditation." He pledges to continue advocating for peace and dialogue and not "surrender to unholy forces": the ever-growing Islamists in Bangladesh, a nation known for the moderate variant of Islam practiced there. In the meantime, Choudhury suffers. His health continues deteriorating, while prison authorities refuse him needed medical treatment despite court orders. His family has been deprived of a living. Their business closed and looted, banks refuse them credit to re-open. Sohail Choudhury is denied employment, as employers have essentially blackballed him. When Bangladesh's social and political situation deteriorated this spring, friends feared that Choudhury might turn up "shot while trying to escape" or simply disappear.
There are five essential reasons why the government would want to harass Choudhury: to stop his activities; to warn others who might dare speak the heresy of peace with the Jews; to assert its power; and to curry favor with the populace during times of unrest. But the final reason is the most important: they do it because they can, because no one effectively stops them. Despite protests by a few rights groups, Bangladeshi officials face little sustained outrage over this human rights violation. Choudhury preached peace and interfaith understanding, and was persecuted for it. He took a personal risk in standing with us and is paying for it. We must not sit by idly.
He urges supporters to visit our web site, www.freechoudhury.com, where they can: send messages of hope to the family, which strengthens their resolve; protest this injustice to Bangladesh, and ask world leaders to help; sign an online petition for his freedom. The Bangladesh government is starting to take notice through its embassies and even the Prime Minister's office. Please encourage them. You also can help the family with suggested employment possibilities for Sohail Choudhury locally or online; or financially by contacting me at email@example.com.
Were the Choudhurys in Europe during the Holocaust, they would have refused to drive the trains.
Dr. Richard Benkin, 2/September/2004