Prisoner of Zion, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

Choudhury is a Muslim, imprisoned for advocating against the prevailing, politically correct orthodoxy about Israel and the Jews, urging instead recognition, respect and peace. His story is one of redemption, moral action, false imprisonment, a faith tested and, we pray, a happy ending.

Richard Benkin,

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צילום: ערוץ 7
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an inconvenience. He is an inopportune reminder. He is an option, an alternative that most would rather not have presented. And last week, he sat alone in his Dhaka prison cell, marking the one-year anniversary of his arrest for being that inconvenience.

Choudhury is a Muslim, imprisoned for advocating against the prevailing, politically correct orthodoxy about Israel and the Jews, urging instead recognition, respect and peace. His story is one of redemption, moral action, false imprisonment, a faith tested and, we pray, a happy ending.

Reared in a Muslim society, Choudhury received a worldview that demonized the Jewish State and the Jewish people. He even worked for a time at an Islamist-backed paper, the Daily Inqilab. But something happened to make him question that direction. Perhaps it was his family upbringing that made him recoil at the blatant bigotry; perhaps it was the tolerant form of Islam widely practiced in his native Bangladesh. It might have been his natural journalistic curiosity and the alternative perspectives to which it led him, especially on the Internet.

And so, he sent out a cry for help, one of which arrived in my inbox, and which only a heart of stone could fail to answer. The people of Bangladesh were being deceived; getting only carefully selected news and information about the Middle East. The media were portraying Israel and the Jews unfairly, and those one-sided media portrayals were contrary to the basic core values and tolerance that characterize his people. Ultimately, he challenged that view and saw how much Jews, Muslims and Christians share.

So, throughout much of 2003, he published articles urging Bangladesh to recognize Israel, condemning the insidious and growing fundamentalist movement in the country, its dangerous hold on elements of government and society, and the biased reporting on Israel and Jews. His fledgling weekly, Blitz, carried his nation's first media interview with an Israeli, Professor Ada Aharoni from Haifa; and he helped others, including this author, publish pro-Israeli articles in Bangladesh, sparking debate in the nation's press and government.

Choudhury did not know, however, that sinister forces including his own brother-in-law, had him under surveillance and were waiting for a chance to pounce.

That chance came on November 29. As he prepared to board a plane for an historic address on the media and peace to Aharoni's Hebrew Writers Association in Tel Aviv, he was seized and secreted away for questioning. The next day, a magistrate announced the pending charge: spying for "the interests of Israel against the interests of Bangladesh," and remanded him for more interrogation. Then, the 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, so that even when he is freed, "I will have to start from ashes."

Next ensued a bizarre public vilification program with self-contradicting elements that made clear its evil intent. Through selective government leaks, innuendo and outright falsehoods, the police and the press accused Choudhury 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 received frequent threats, mobs gathered at the family home and his children had to be kept indoors for their safety. Religious groups and others pressured the family, and especially his aged mother, to denounce him. That pressure and the overall stress of her son's imprisonment led to his mother's death this past August. His brother and principal spokesman, Sohail Choudhury, was attacked physically and twice had to flee the capital for his safety. When he went to the police for help, they refused, instead blaming the Choudhurys for their "alliance with the Jews."

Choudhury was hauled into court numerous times, always remanded for "interrogation". And each time, he recognized Islamic fundamentalists among his tormentors. Then, in March, Choudhury was charged with sedition, a capital offense. Another penalty - for violating Bangladesh's passport law that outlaws travel to Israel, something that Choudhury freely admits - was deemed satisfied when his incarceration far exceeded the maximum possible penalty. Despite ongoing and peremptory denials of bail, lack of access to evidence and the court's admitted refusal to follow its own law, Choudhury said on many occasions that he was not worried about the sedition charge. For one thing, he knew that the charge was baseless, that he is innocent, something the government has as much as admitted.

Finding solace in his Muslim faith, he is convinced that his advocacy of peace and "dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews" is the "will of the Almighty G-d." The only obstacle, we thought, was Bangladesh's notoriously corrupt lower courts; which is why it came as a crushing blow when on August 21, 2004, the respected Bangladesh High Court rejected Choudhury's final 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," but that is nothing more than a transparent ruse. The government has never presented any credible evidence for the charge, while in early leaks, government sources claimed that they already had the goods on Choudhury. The most damning bit of evidence, they alleged, was the speech he was to deliver at the Tel Aviv conference. As the author of that speech, I can assert unequivocally that it has no seditious content. In fact, while it condemns radical fundamentalists, the speech praises Bangladesh for its history of tolerance.

The Choudhury case is a microcosm of the evil we face: officials complicit hiding behind the facade of manufactured "popular" sentiment, anti-Jewish hatred, goose-stepping toeing of the anti-Israeli line. But it would be wrong to paint all of Bangladesh with that brush, which is why we were working in that nation, a nation that can produce a Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. There are, however, evil elements afoot there with the intention of hijacking the nation for their twisted philosophy.

Choudhury scares them and is an obstacle to their foul purpose, for he is telling the world that there is not one standard Muslim narrative of right and wrong in the Middle East, that contemporary followers of the prophet Mohammed do not need to divide the world into Muslims and infidels. To accept that is to accept the possibility of peace - and of a Jewish state in the Middle East. The fundamentalists and their sycophants feel that they must stop Choudhury and others like him, in order to warn others who might dare speak the heresy of peace with the Jews, to assert fundamentalist power and to curry favor with the populace during times of unrest.

But they have not defeated him. Even while Choudhury languishes in prison, where fellow inmates pejoratively call him "friend of Israel," the "agony, pain, sufferings and humiliations" that are his lot strengthen 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" of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

His moral backbone soon might be rewarded. On the anniversary of Choudhury's capture, I met with ministers at the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington. Our talks were positive and there was not even a hint of the standard anti-Zionist line or backdoor justification of this human rights abuse. Their approach was conciliatory and trailed into discussions of Jewish-Muslim dialogue. I remarked on the irony of how a key element in this affair is Bangladesh's refusal to recognize Israel and, as I sat in their embassy, I could see the Israeli flag flying proudly only two doors down at the Israeli embassy. In fact, the neighbors do interact. What a waste, I said, that we have not found a way to translate that contact into open relations.

Most significantly, however, the ministers agreed that they could not answer my question as to why this man remains behind bars. One of them even admitted that his own inquiries were dismissed without evidence. I responded that nations - like the United States, like Israel and like the Bangladesh that can be - living under the rule of law do not brutalize their citizens while their suspects were "under investigation." They agreed and asked for some time to respond and take action.

And action is what we need, for everyday that the officials do not act is another day that my friend and colleague remains in prison, that his family grows ever more impoverished and the prospects of peace fade. If every individual reading this article goes to the web site devoted to Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury's freedom, www.freechoudhury.com, the impact at this critical juncture will be enormous. If those same people also sign the petition linked on the site, their actions would be even greater. And if each person asks one or more friend to do the same, their good deeds will be multiplied several fold, and we will have a true human rights movement. And if, while at the site, those good people use the links there to send letters of protest to the Bangladesh government and others, they will have made a difference.

Hard historical lessons have taught that evil tends to happen when good people are silent or indifferent. And current events remind us that purveyors of evil remain active today, especially when they face little or no opposition to their foul intents. Help and support this courageous man. Stand up for my friend and colleague, for the man whose fellows call him "friend of the Jews." He took a personal risk by standing with us and is now paying for it. We must not sit by idly. For if Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury had been in Europe during the Shoah, he would have refused to drive the trains.


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