Friends in Bangladesh

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. He goes on trial on Thursday. He could get the death penalty. For what? ‘His crime is to have tried to attend a writers’ conference in Tel Aviv on how the media can foster world peace.’ Ah yes – that’s a good reason to kill someone.

But few stories better illustrate the Islamist tinderbox that Bangladesh has become than Mr. Choudhury’s. “When I began my newspaper [the Weekly Blitz] in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel,” he says in the first of several telephone interviews in recent days. “In Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the world’s realities.”

So he was beaten up for ten days, then spent 16 months in solitary confinement, until he was released on bail.

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 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.

So it’s time to turn the glare of public attention on Choudhury and his fate. Jeff Weintraub alerted me (and a slew of other people) to the matter, and particularly urged Juan Cole to make a statement about it on Informed Comment. Norm already has a post (Jeff noted that Norm beat him to the punch). Pass it on.

The Wall Street Journal is not letting the Bush admin off the hook on this one.

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?”…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?

Good luck, Mr. Choudhury. Be well. Solidarity.

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