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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bangladeshi Muslim editor faces death penalty for moderate views

A Bangladeshi Muslim journalist arrested in the past for advocating ties with Israel now faces charges of sedition, a crime punishable by death in Bangladesh, and will likely be put on trial by the end of the month, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

In a court session on Tuesday in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, a state-appointed judge ruled that the government's case against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury could proceed to trial and that the hearings would commence within 15 days.

As editor of The Weekly Blitz, an English-language newspaper published in Dhaka, Choudhury aroused the ire of Bangladeshi authorities after he printed articles favorable to Israel and critical of Muslim extremism.

Bangladesh does not recognize Israel's existence and refuses to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

In November 2003, Choudhury was arrested at Dhaka's international airport just prior to boarding a flight on his way to Israel, where he was scheduled to deliver an address on promoting understanding between Muslims and Jews. His visit to Israel would have been the first by a Bangladeshi journalist.

Choudhury was charged with sedition, held in prison for 17 months and was reportedly tortured before being freed in April 2005. But the authorities in Bangladesh, which is ruled by a coalition government that includes Islamic extremists, decided to continue pursuing charges against him.

Dr. Richard Benkin, an American Jew who led the fight to win Choudhury's release, told the Post that the situation facing the beleaguered journalist was dire.

"Choudhury has angered the Islamists, who both engineered his arrest and continue to see this as an important case," Benkin said. "He is a pro-Israeli, anti-terrorist Muslim who will not be cowed into silence."

After his release from prison last year, Choudhury proceeded to reopen his weekly newspaper, continuing to publish articles calling for greater interfaith understanding and warning of the dangers posed by fundamentalist Islamic terror.

Last month, unknown assailants set off explosives outside the newspaper's offices and planted a bomb in the press room that failed to detonate.

According to Benkin, Choudhury's family has been subjected to various forms of what appear to be orchestrated harassment. These have included pressure from the Bangladeshi authorities to denounce Choudhury, angry crowds gathering outside their home and even physical attacks. The intimidation has stopped "for the moment," he said.

In a May 20, 2005 opinion piece published in the Post, Choudhury wrote: "As a journalist, I counteracted the biased 'news' that promoted hatred of Israel and Jews, condemned terrorism, promoted the free exchange of ideas and urged Bangladesh to recognize Israel."

Describing the moments immediately before his 2003 arrest, he wrote: "Though physically still in Dhaka, my heart ached to kiss Israel's holy soil."

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