Jerusalem Post Article

Sep. 7, 2004 20:18

Nightmare in Dhaka

By SALAH UDDIN SHOAIB CHOUDHURY

We expect people to be punished for crimes, and that immorality will have its consequences. We do not expect people to be arrested, tortured and imprisoned for favoring global peace, interfaith dialogue and ending religious hatred. But that is precisely what happened to me.

What was my "crime"? Being a living contradiction: a Zionist and a devout Muslim living in Bangladesh, the world's second-largest Muslim country.

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. My colleague, Dr. Richard Benkin, and I worked together and saw the start of real debate. We were ecstatic and hopeful.

But on November 29, 2003, police grabbed me as I was about to board a plane for Tel Aviv, at the invitation of Dr. Ada Aharoni, to address the Hebrew Writers Association on the media's role in creating cultures of peace.

At the airport, spiritually in Israel though physically still in Dhaka, my heart ached to kiss Israel's holy soil. I presented my passport. The inspector glared at me and raised his eyebrows. Silently, he rose and escorted me to a higher official's office.

Clearly, they had planned this. The official's cold words crushed me: "You cannot travel on this flight." He motioned, and several officers ripped open my luggage and ran through its contents - a few meager belongings and small gifts. They searched my bag and my person, seized my passport, tickets and $3,000. I stood silent, shocked, until an officer said, "Mr. Choudhury, you are under arrest for attempted travel to an enemy country."

I could remain silent no longer. "Enemy country? How is Israel an enemy of Bangladesh? Are we at war?"

"No," he said, "but Bangladeshi passports are not valid for travel there. We have no diplomatic relations with them."

"Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan either," I replied, "but we can travel to that country."

"The two situations are quite different," he waved a hand. "We have no relations with Taiwan only to keep China happy. But Israel offends our religious sentiments."

That was it, right there; the reason behind it all. I retorted that it was nonsense to call Israel an enemy of Islam, but to no avail. We argued until I was taken to an isolated and dark prison cell.

Late that night guards led me, blindfolded and exhausted, to a small interrogation room. They accused me of spying for Israel and threatened dire consequences if I did not confess. They badgered me for hours, but I denied the charge.

"My mission is peace," I said, standing firm. Back in my cell, swarms of mosquitoes gorged on my blood while, famished, I had a mere crust of bread and water from the toilet tap. I was disgusted and sickened, but so hungry that I ate.

The following day I appeared before the metropolitan magistrate, where my lawyer sought bail and the police requested I be remanded for interrogation. The matter was decided before it began.

MANY PEOPLE know my story, my imprisonment beyond legal limits, the sedition charge and denial of due process. Only now can I convey the barbarism to which I was subjected in the name of interrogation - falsely in the name of Islam and Bangladesh.

I was continuously blindfolded, made physically and mentally weak from the ordeal, thrown in a cell for the insane and denied a bath or basic hygiene. Only after international outrage was I placed in Cell 15 which, though reserved for notorious criminals, was a slight improvement for me.

My situation became more precarious with every passing day. My health deteriorated markedly and I was denied much-needed medical care. Only my faith, conviction and supporters prevented me from succumbing to the despair. My fellow prisoners called me "friend of the Jews."

Outside, police ransacked my home and office and seized my property, not even sparing my daughter's personal computer. They mistreated my mother and wife. My family was deprived of a living; our businesses were closed and looted. Their severe economic constraints were made worse by the ongoing legal bills. We sold off assets to survive. Dr. Benkin sent us money while my family tried frantically and in vain to secure bail.

In August, my mother died of a massive heart attack. The pain of my imprisonment and the uncertainty of ever seeing me again proved too much.

My worst moments came when the temporary bail that would allow me to attend my mother's funeral was revoked. I cried for hours, alone in my prison cell. The prime minister ordered an inquiry into the matter, but was ignored. My family was told that government "higher-ups" were the culprits.

In January, I was shocked to see the government's charge sheet naming Drs. Benkin and Aharoni as my espionage contacts. How would they react? My brother informed Dr. Benkin, who said: "If my brother can take the pain of imprisonment and face trial for achieving our common goal, I can at least be in Bangladesh to say, 'I am with you!" Dr. Benkin led the fight to free me and is no mere friend but my loving brother, with whom I am proud to work. His words strengthened me.

In April, US Congressman Mark Kirk took up my case as his own and called a meeting with Dr. Benkin and Washington's Bangladeshi ambassador. His action seemed to awaken the Bangladesh government, which released me three weeks later.

A court appearance on May 25 should dispose of the charges, and I am confident that Bangladesh is moving in a positive direction. I hope to see our government sponsor interfaith conferences and support a free and open press so that my people will be able to take back our nation and return us to our tradition of tolerance.

Many Muslims believe that they cannot be friends with Jews, but I am living proof that such friendship is possible. When my own people turned their backs on me, my Jewish friends stood by me. The only way our two nations will know true peace is through the understanding that contact, commerce and dialogue brings; and I will work tirelessly in that great effort.

The writer was publisher and editor of the Bangladeshi magazine Weekly Blitz, which was ransacked during his imprisonment.