March 23, 2008
The Man Islamists Cannot SilenceBy Richard L. Benkin
He fired the first salvo in 2003 and has been sticking his thumb in Islamist eyes ever since. Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury describes himself as a "Muslim Zionist." He is unabashedly pro-US, pro-Israel, and anti-Islamist. More importantly, he remains all of that from within the Muslim world, which he refuses to leave. I have fielded any number of asylum requests for him, and he declined them all. "Retreat is not in my vocabulary," he says, for he believes that if he were to leave his country, his credibility would be gone, and Islamists would claim victory; a satisfaction he refuses to give them. "Bangladesh is my country," he says. "Let the radicals leave!"
Since 2003, we have fought not only a battle of ideas but also a battle of wills with our adversaries; and the skirmishes never end. Shoaib has been imprisoned and tortured. He has been beaten, and Islamists bombed his newspaper before they and their cronies in the ruling party seized the premises. All of this happened after Shoaib published articles that exposed the rising strength of Islamist radicals in Bangladesh, urged relations with Israel, and advocated genuine interfaith dialogue based on religious equality.
In November of that year, he was about to board a plane for Bangkok and then Israel (there are no direct flights between Dhaka and Tel Aviv), agents grabbed him. Eventually, they charged him with sedition, treason, and blasphemy, which are capital offenses and could send Shoaib to the gallows.
In 2005, however, after an intense seventeen month campaign for his freedom, Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL) took on his case. He summoned then Bangladeshi Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury to his Washington office, and the three of us had a sometimes acrimonious, always difficult, hours-long meeting. As Kirk (a member of the House Appropriations Committee) describes it, we had a "full and frank discussion," after which Dhaka agreed to free Shoaib Choudhury.
Our elation was short-lived, however, when Shamsher Chowdhury clarified that Shoaib would be freed on bail even though the ambassador had just admitted that there was no substance to the charges. To be sure, we had won the most important point: Shoaib would be free. Still, I looked up and said, "Not good enough. It's an old and tired ruse used by tyrants," I continued. "Free the dissident but keep the charges pending in order to silence him." And so we argued some more until Chowdhury relented and agreed that Dhaka would drop the charges not long after Shoaib's release.
That was three years ago. The charges remain, even though numerous Bangladeshi officials have made the same admission as the ambassador; that the charges are baseless and are maintained only to placate the country's radical Islamists. Bangladesh's population is about 88 percent Muslim, a figure that is growing constantly, especially as Hindus are being ethnically cleansed from that country, falling from 18 to nine percent of the population. Although radical Islamists affiliated with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations represent only a small proportion of the population, they have infiltrated and taken charge of almost every major institution in Bangladesh from education and banking to police and the judiciary.
For months, both sides had settled into a sort of stasis until this past fall when the Bangladeshis tried illegally to revoke Shoaib's bail and send him back to prison. The fact that we continued to frustrate these attempts could have had something to do with what happened next. On the evening of March 18, as Shoaib sat at his desk working on another edition of his newspaper, Weekly Blitz, a large contingent of armed goons from the government's paramilitary squad -- the hated and feared Rapid Action Battalion or RAB -- burst into his office. They ordered all employees out, seized Shoaib's means of contacting the outside, and began "interrogating" him.
Fortunately, his driver quickly alerted Shoaib's brother, Sohail, who telephoned me in the United States. Shoaib's life was in very real danger, so we determined on an immediate course of action. Sohail called Luke Zahner, Second Secretary at the US Embassy in Dhaka, and a long time supporter of Shoaib's. Zahner, who had previously helped set up USAID's elections support program in Iraq, notified U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Geeta Pasi.
I telephoned Kirk's office and described the events unfolding in Dhaka and their life-and-death nature to Andria Hoffman, who is Kirk's point person on the Choudhury case. "These [RAB] are bad people. I know them, and you don't even want them as friends, let alone be on their bad side. They're the kind of group where people sometimes go into their custody and ‘disappear.'"
Hoffman got to Kirk, and they set up an emergency command center in his Longworth Building office. I then called three other legislators who have been especially supportive of Shoaib: Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-PA). Their staffs -- who had frequently worked with me on Shoaib's case -- said they would take action and coordinate further with Kirk's office.
That done, I telephoned Bangladesh's DC embassy and told them the following: "If I don't receive a telephone call confirming that Shoaib has been released unharmed and soon, you're going to have a s**t storm like you've never even imagined." Within a short time, the embassy received calls from all four members of Congress mentioned above, as well as several others who they got involved. Hoffman called the Embassy's political secretary, Sheikh Mohammed Belal on his personal cell phone, demanding action.
Cut to Bangladesh. After holding Shoaib for about an hour an a half, an RAB officer said (and I am paraphrasing here), ‘Oh look, it appears he has some illegal drugs in his desk drawer.' Now, I have known Shoaib as a brother for years, and we have spent a lot of time together. The man is simply not involved in any way with drugs. Moreover, he and I have spoken on many occasions of the paramount importance of his remaining "squeaky clean" in every way so as not to give his enemies an excuse to further persecute him. According to Sohail Choudhury, the evidence had to be planted, a tactic that RAB has been known to use rather liberally. No matter; they blindfolded Shoaib and took him to a "detention center" within RAB's office in the capital. According to Shoaib, the officers continued the verbal assault non-stop. They threatened him specifically and journalists in general for their criticism of the current military-backed government. They repeatedly called Shoaib a "Zionist spy and agent of the Jews."
At one point, Shoaib reminded them that they were violating a US Congressional Resolution that calls for an end to this sort of harassment, something with which the government said it would comply. House Resolution 64, authored by Kirk and co-sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) calls on the Bangladeshis to drop all charges against Shoaib and end all harassment of him and his family. It passed last year by an overwhelmingly 409-1 margin. Their response was a string of expletives about the United States and the value of its resolutions.
As they approached the three hour mark, things were turning even nastier. RAB officers told Shoaib that he could expect a steady diet of this, or even worse, unless he began working for them; something that he called "ridiculous." Then the phone rang. The officers told Shoaib that the call came from "a high government official" ordering them to let him go. He phoned Sohail and asked him to bring him home.
Before they allowed them to go, however, Shoaib's captors forced the pair to sign an affidavit giving RAB the power to enter their home or business at any time and for any reason; although it should be added that it had no warrant or other sort of order when its men broke into his newspaper earlier. As such, Shoaib remains in danger, especially as his legal status remains equivocal at best.
Although Shoaib was released unharmed, the action represents a serious escalation of the government's and its Islamist cronies' attempt to silence this courageous journalist who now counts supporters on every continent. Equally important, we have learned over the years that they do these things periodically to probe us and test our resolve. They want to know if we are going to react or note. They want to know if we still are ready to defend Shoaib and other anti-Islamists or if we have lost interest.
Unfortunately, they started this false persecution on the assumption that no one would care what happened to Shoaib, and many in the government still believe that we Americans have little resolve -- and actually have told me that. And so they go after us. Our enemies count on this and point to success when they hear proposals to make concessions in Israel or to pull up stakes in Iraq and elsewhere. If we don't respond, and respond with strength, they'll continue persecuting Shoaib and others like him.
Because, in fact, the stakes go beyond even the fate of this hero. Muslim editors from Pakistan to Indonesia (and even the United States) have told us that Muslims throughout Asia are watching this case. They want to know if it is possible to stand against the radicals and prevail -- without running to the safety of the West, as they put it. If Shoaib prevails, they will be emboldened to act similarly. If we let him go down -- and that is exactly how they will see it -- they will remain silent.
When Shoaib was in prison, his brother told me that people all over the world who need a champion to save them from oppression look only one place, the United States; not to Europe; not to tyrants like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or Fidel Castro who claim to be freedom fighters; and not to terrorist like Osama Bin Laden. When we stand with Shoaib, we reinforce their belief in us.
In the meantime, Shoaib Choudhury refuses to be silent, especially he says given all the support he received. Two days after his abuse at RAB's hands, he published another edition of Weekly Blitz. Two of its headline articles were "RAB Cocoon of Terror" and "They want to Appease Islamists." He is our ally; he is my brother; he is the bravest man I know. He is the man whom Islamists cannot silence.