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Is Shoaib Choudhury?s Ordeal Drawing to a Close?

The trial of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury continued this week in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  It was his second court appearance in two weeks after being called no more than once a month for the last four years.  (Prior to that, he spent 17 months of imprisonment and torture for his anti-Islamist and pro-Israel articles.)  The next day, he received a call from an attorney who told him that the prosecutor in his case said the government would convict Shoaib even though it did not have the evidence for it.  While it would be wrong to minimize the danger facing Shoaib or to assume that the Bangladeshis would not convict Shoaib without evidence; the prosecutor’s boast is more significant for the subtle messages he conveyed.

The most important one is that the government has finally admitted that it does not have any evidence to support the admittedly false charges of sedition, treason, and blasphemy. This represents a highly significant change in the position held by the government for the past five and a half years; a position that several Bangladeshi officials have been trying to convince their governments has cost the Bangladeshi people dearly.

Shoaib’s last two court appearances appear to support that conclusion.  After months of nothing but continuances and only one government witness (who has been AWOL since being asked for evidence to support his allegations), the prosecution called seven different witnesses in two weeks, who testified only to Shoaib’s alleged attempt to travel to Israel.  On July 15, a computer technician added that the government seized Shoaib’s computers but did not say what was on them; and a police official also opined that Shoaib hurt the “religious sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews.” This week’s  witnesses added that Shoaib communicated over the internet to people in Israel (something many Bangladeshis do), and a police officer testified that when arrested, Shoaib was carrying “banned books,” sparking the following exchange between the witness and Shoaib’s attorney.

“Did you read these books and are you sure that these are banned?”

“No I did not read them or see any ban order.”

“How do you know that these were banned books?”

“I was told by someone.”

That is about as anemic a case as one could imagine, and it is clear that the prosecution is banking on a political decision; but that decision would cost the Bangladeshi’s.  First, and perhaps most important, it would put the lie to apologists who have been claiming that the current Bangladeshi government is more democratic and less patronizing of Islamists than previous ones.  To that extent, it would bargain away a major negotiating ploy that the Bangladeshis are planning on using with the United States and other western countries for aid and trade benefits.

Beyond that, the prosecution through it witnesses alleges that praising Christians and Jews is a major crime in Bangladesh.  How well will that sit with Christian-majority countries like the United States if the court agrees with it; or that using the internet, “banned books,” or “criticizing madrassas” is, as another witness testified?  With legal scholars like Canada’s Irwin Cotler involved in Shoaib’s defense, Bangladesh can expect that a conviction contrary to law will initiate sanctions by international legal bodies, as well.

The government is not presenting any new even compelling evidence.  If this is all it can regurgitate after five and a half years, there cannot be much of a case, at least on the basis of Bangladeshi law. Even the judge seemed to agree, asking the defense to explain exactly what Shoaib is accused of doing, after one day of unconvincing testimony. When his Bangladesh Minority Lawyers Association advocate said that he exposeding the rise of radical Islam and its use of madrassas, Judge Bashir Ullah said Shoaib should be rewarded and not condemned.

Shoaib said the Public Prosecutor was smiling at that point.  Whether he was smiling because he knows a guilty verdict will be handed down regardless, or because he sees an end to Shoaib’s ordeal crowned with a not guilty verdict, is a matter of speculation.  One way or another, according to Shoaib, the government has decided to finish the trial, perhaps as early as August. They could have done so months, even years ago but did not. Perhaps the economic hard times have led them to re-cast their strategy as regards trade. Perhaps they have read recent articles urging the United Nations to bar Bangladesh from peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh provides more UN peacekeepers than any other country except Pakistan, and doing so has become critical for the Bangladeshi economy. It was also one of the underlying reasons for the 2007 coup there. Or maybe it is they, not us, who ultimately tired of it all.  (Some Bangladeshi officials cling to the mistaken belief that the West has no stomach for a long fight.)

If Shoaib is right, the court will set a date for defense rebuttal once the government concludes its case.  After that, the judge will retire to determine verdicts and set a date for reading the judgment.  An acquittal will vindicate Bangladesh as a nation of laws.  A conviction contrary to Bangladeshi law will reinforce the arguments of those who say that Bangladesh values radical Islam over justice, political expediency even over its own constitution.  Waiting to see which values hold would be an interesting exercise were it not for the fact that a man’s life and the principles of justice hang in the balance.  One thing is clear, however, months of delay are coming to an end as is the trial of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury—the Muslim journalist who refuses to back down to Islamist radicals, openly supports Israel, and does so while refusing to leave the Muslim world.  The world will be watching to determine what comes next.