WASHINGTON — For a man who says he could be condemned to death as early as next month, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is surprisingly calm.
Choudhury’s crime: calling for diplomatic ties between his native Bangladesh and the State of Israel.
“The High Court has ruled that by conveying the message of the rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh to Jews and Christians, and by advocating relations between Dhaka and Jerusalem, I have damaged the image of Bangladesh worldwide,” Choudhury said.
The 41-year-old journalist and editor spoke to JTA in a 20-minute phone interview last week from Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital. He said his trial for sedition, blasphemy and treason, which began in September, will resume Jan. 22 after a short break.
Choudhury, who is free on bail, said there is little chance of receiving a fair trial, and he probably will be sentenced to death. He spoke from a secure landline since his cell phone is under government surveillance, Choudhury said.
“The judicial system is corrupted by Islamic radicals,” he said. “By continuing this trial and convicting me, they want to send the message that anyone else in Bangladesh who thinks as I do will face the same consequences.”
Choudhury is the editor and publisher of The Weekly Blitz, an English-language newspaper founded in 2003 that now has 7,500 print subscribers and 40,000 readers online.
Those numbers may not sound impressive for Bangladesh — a nation of 145 million people packed into an area the size of Wisconsin — but the newspaper is read regularly by policymakers, businesspeople and other influential Bangladeshis, as well as foreign diplomats.
A Muslim, Choudhury first came into contact with Jews in the early 1990s while working as Dhaka correspondent for the Russian news agency Tass.
He established friendships with Jewish colleagues despite the anti-Semitic propaganda so prevalent in Bangladesh, which is 85 percent Muslim and ranks as the world’s third-most populous Muslim nation after Indonesia and Pakistan.
“When I was a child, my father always encouraged us not to believe the Friday afternoon sermons of hate coming from the mosque,” said Choudhury, who began a dialogue with editors at the Jerusalem Post three years ago and eventually was invited to Israel by the Hebrew Writers Association.
But Choudhury never made it to Jerusalem.
On Nov. 29, 2003, as he was about to board a plane in Dhaka for the circuitous journey to Israel, Choudhury was arrested and his passport was confiscated, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in a prepared statement. He was accused of espionage and charged with sedition.
Choudhury “spent the next 17 months in hellish prison conditions, including torture, denial of medical attention and isolation” as the government tried to build a case that Choudhury was an Israeli spy, Harris said.
He was released in April 2005, thanks largely to the efforts of U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Dr. Richard Benkin, a Jewish activist from Chicago.
Yet the sedition charge is pending, and in October, a mob of 40 Islamic militants beat Choudhury in his Dhaka office — three months after the office was firebombed.
On Nov. 14, Kirk and Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., cosponsored a resolution calling on the Bangladeshi government to drop all charges against Choudhury, stop “harassment and intimidation,” and “hold accountable those responsible for attacks” against him.
Choudhury initially was charged with passport violations; the sedition charges were added nearly two months later. Among other things, Choudhury was accused of writing an inflammatory column titled “Hello Tel Aviv” for USA Today.
“I never wrote any such article,” he insisted. “Even the prosecution said he had no document available because it was never published.”
In late October, The Washington Times published an editorial urging the Bush administration to suspend $63 million in annual aid to Bangladesh unless the charges against Choudhury are dropped. Besides the AJCommittee, other organizations that have been outspoken in the case include Reporters Without Borders, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Responding to the attacks, Shamsher Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s ambassador to the United States, insisted that Choudhury the journalist is a conniving liar with a criminal past.
“In Bangladesh, nobody is a prisoner of conscience,” the ambassador told JTA. “There is no such thing as putting a journalist behind bars for expressing his views. We have total freedom of the press. If he’s saying he was arrested for advocating ties with Israel, then he’s not telling the truth. That cannot be a charge. That’s not sedition.”
Chowdhury said it is “totally untrue” that the journalist was beaten by a mob outside his office as police stood by idly, as Choudhury has claimed.
Far from being a “prisoner of conscience” for advocating ties with Israel, Chowdhury said the journalist in the past has been found guilty of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds.
“In 2003 he leaked very classified information about the government which we thought endangered state security,” Chowdhury said. “So charges of sedition were brought against him, and now the matter is before the court. He’s on bail and free to write and correspond with people. He has a valid passport and is free to travel.”
The ambassador claims Choudhury “is in touch with his friends here and has even thanked the Bangladeshi government for creating a situation where he can travel. He doesn’t feel threatened anymore.”
Choudhury responded angrily to the ambassador’s claims.
“He’s a committed liar,” he said. “This is nothing but a damn lie.”
Benkin, the Chicago activist, said the Bangladeshi government — including the ambassador, whom he met in April 2005 with Kirk — has lost all credibility.
“The government has never produced a scintilla of credible evidence against him,” Benkin said. “Over three years ago they said he was guilty. They tortured him for 17 months and they’re still carrying out this persecution.”
He added that the Bangladeshi government demonizes Israel, even naming a bridge after Hezbollah in the wake of the terrorist group’s war against Israel last summer.
Nobody practices Judaism openly in Bangladesh, though Choudhury said 150 to 200 Jews live in Dhaka, where they keep an extremely low profile and meet secretly in private homes.
Benkin’s Web site, www.freechoudhury.com, calls on Americans to boycott apparel made in Bangladesh — a crucial industry that employs more than 2 million people — to pressure the government to drop the Choudhury case.
Benkin, who has never met Choudhury, applied three times this year for a visa to Bangladesh but was rejected. Under pressure, however, Chowdhury the ambassador recently changed his mind and granted a visa to Benkin, who plans to fly to Dhaka early next month.
In another development, Canadian legislator and human-rights lawyer Irwin Cotler announced he would defend Choudhury in court. A former justice minister of Canada and past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Cotler has represented prisoners of conscience including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Argentina’s Jacobo Timerman and Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky.
Despite the risks, Choudhury said he had no intention of asking for political asylum abroad.
“I’m not going to do that because there is no dignity, no pride or honor in quitting,” he said. “I have complete faith and trust in God, and in my brothers and sisters around the world who are working on my behalf.”