The United States has denounced the Bangladeshi government's decision to try a moderate Muslim editor for advocating ties with Israel, saying he is "clearly a victim" of "Bangladesh's dysfunctional legal and judicial systems."
As The Jerusalem Post first reported last month, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the Weekly Blitz newspaper, an English-language publication based in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, faces multiple counts of espionage and sedition in connection with his articles critical of Islamic extremism and favorable to Israel. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.
Choudhury was arraigned in a Dhaka court on October 12, and prosecutors will begin calling witnesses against him when the hearings reconvene on November 13. Although Choudhury's lawyer will be permitted to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses, he will not be able to call any of his own to testify in Choudhury's defense.
"Like thousands of Bangladeshis every year, Mr. Choudhury is clearly a victim of Bangladesh's dysfunctional legal and judicial systems," Gregg Sullivan, a spokesman for the State Department, told the Post. "He was held without bail for 15 months and the sedition case against him appears to lack a strong legal basis."
Sullivan said the US Embassy in Dhaka had sent an observer to attend Choudhury's trial. "We intend to continue following the case of Mr. Choudhury, and have made that clear to Bangladeshi authorities," he added.
Sullivan said Choudhury is "the only Bangladeshi journalist who has been formally charged with sedition in recent years," even though other Bangladeshis have voiced similar sentiments regarding the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in their country.
As the Post reported exclusively on Wednesday, Choudhury was recently attacked and beaten in his office by a crowd of some 40 people that included senior members of Bangladesh's ruling party.
On October 5, a mob stormed the premises of Choudhury's newspaper and beat him, fracturing his ankle. They also looted cash that was kept in the company safe. No arrests were made, and Bangladeshi police refused to allow Choudhury to file charges against his attackers.
Asked to comment on the incident, Sullivan said there were
indications that it was related to a "property dispute" rather than the sedition charges pending against Choudhury.
"We have made clear to Bangladeshi officials our interests in Mr. Choudhury's case and have urged the Bangladeshi government to ensure that individuals like Mr. Choudhury are granted full rights and due process in accordance with Bangladeshi law," he said.
Choudhury's troubles date back to November 2003, when he was arrested at Dhaka's international airport as he was preparing to board a flight to travel to Israel, where he was due to deliver a speech on promoting mutual understanding between Muslims and Jews. His visit to Israel would have been the first by a Bangladeshi journalist. Bangladesh does not recognize Israel's existence.
After being held in prison for 17 months, where he was reportedly tortured, Choudhury was released in April 2005.
But authorities in Bangladesh, which is ruled by a coalition government that includes Islamic extremists, decided to pursue charges against him.
Spearheaded by American human-rights activist Dr. Richard Benkin, a number of international organizations have called for Choudhury's release.