A state of emergency was declared in Bangladesh on 11 January 2007. At least forty people have been killed in protests that began last year in October, when the Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, ended her five-year term and handed over power to an interim government. The media are being heavily censored and journalists are in the front line of fire, with many being heavily censored or receiving death threats.
This is nothing new. Two years ago I wrote about the case of Bangladeshi journalist Sumi Khan, who suffered a horrific attack and death threats for her writings. There continues to be an ongoing pattern of violence against journalists in Bangladesh, and many are frequently threatened and attacked with apparent impunity solely for the practice of their profession. According to Reporters Without Borders, last year alone three journalists were killed and at least ninety-five were physically attacked.
Another journalist to suffer attacks for his writing, and who currently faces the death sentence for planning to attend a writers’ conference in Israel, is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the tabloid weekly entertainment magazine Blitz.
The case against Choudhury began in 2003, when he was accused of spying for Israel on the basis of the text of a speech he was to have given on the role of the media in the dialogue between Muslims and Jews, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. Choudhury had recently been named head of the Bangladeshi branch of the International Forum for Literature and Culture for Peace (IFLAC), which links writers who campaign for peace.
The journalist was planning to address a writers’ symposium in Tel Aviv entitled ‘Bridges Through Culture’, organised by the Hebrew Writers’ Association. Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and travel to Israel is illegal for Bangladeshi citizens. According to information received by PEN, the editor was arrested by security personnel at Zia International Airport, Dhaka, on 29 November 2003, whilst en route for Israel.
Intelligence forces claim that documents found in Choudhury’s briefcase, including the text of his speech and reports on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, provide evidence to support the charges against him. He is accused of having links to an Israeli intelligence agency and is said to have been under surveillance for several months. Choudhury is known for his work towards improving relations between Muslim countries and Israel. He has written articles against anti-Israeli attitudes in the Muslim world and about the rise of al-Qaeda in Bangladesh which reportedly sparked debate in the Bangladeshi press and government prior to his arrest. The charges carry a maximum penalty of death or thirty years’ imprisonment.
Following his arrest, the journalist was charged with sedition and held in solitary confinement for sixteen months in a Dhaka prison. Choudhury was repeatedly denied a hearing, before finally being released on bail on 2 May 2005. This seems to have been largely due to appeals by PEN USA, who elected Choudhury as an honorary member, as well as pressure from the US State Department and protests by the Committee to Protect Journalists, amongst others. PEN USA awarded the journalist their 2005 Freedom to Write award.
Human rights groups continued to call for the case to be dropped, but were further alarmed by reports that Choudhury was attacked by a group of about thirty men at the offices of his newspaper on 5 October 2006. According to PEN, he was badly beaten in the attack, and around 400,000 Taka (approx £2,910 / 4,400 euros) and several cellphones were taken from the Blitz office. His attackers branded him ‘an agent of the Jews’. According to another report, when Choudhury reported the assault to police, instead of offering him protection, they arrested him.
PEN and other organisations were horrified by the attack and called on the Bangladeshi authorities to provide Choudhury with effective police protection. As well as the incident in October, the journalist had reportedly received a death threat on 26 February 2006 from a militant Islamist leader for his writings, and the offices of his newspaper were bombed in July 2006. Fortunately the explosion caused only minor damage and no injuries, while two other unexploded devices were found inside the premises. These attacks were carried out with impunity. Reporters With Borders note that Mufti Noor Hussain Noorani, who heads the radical movement Khatmey Nabuat (KNM), threatened Choudhury and the Weekly Blitz by telephone on 29 June after it ran an editorial criticising KNM’s attacks on the Muslim group Ahamdiyya. Choudhury reported the threats to the police, but the report was ‘mislaid’ and no measures were taken to protect him.
The editor’s trial resumed in October 2006 and has been subject to several postponements. On 22 January this year Choudhury arrived at the court for the next stage in his trial, but the government witnesses that were to have testified did not show up. According to his friend Dr Richard Benkin, owner and founder of the Interfaith Strength website (which published the speech he should have delivered), the judge appeared in the courtroom only briefly, clearly embarrassed in front of official observers from the US, UK and EU, and was forced to set a later date for the hearing.
According to Dr Benkin, the Public Prosecutor told Choudhury that he had no desire to continue the case as he felt it had no foundation; it was only the radical judge, known to be affiliated with radical Islamists, who was keen on pursuing the journalist’s persecution. To that end, on 28 February three witnesses showed up to testify against the writer. Although there was no testimony, the judge issued an order that the trial should continue on the charges of ‘sedition, treason, and blasphemy’. On 8 March five witnesses showed, but did not testify. The court was adjourned and a new court date was set for 23 April.
Readers may like to send appeals to the High Commissioner in London asking him to forward your concerns to the government. Express serious fears for the safety of journalist Salah Uddin Choudhury and call for charges against the journalist to be dropped in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
HE Mr Sabihuddin Ahmed
High Commission for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
28 Queen’s Gate
London SW7 5JA
Fax: 00 44 207 225 2130