In pursuit of justice

It is not Choudhury who should be on trial; rather, it is the Bangladesh authorities.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is not yet a household name. But he should be - and his case is becoming a cause c l bre. For this courageous Bangladesh journalist and human rights defender is about to stand trial on the charges of sedition, treason and blasphemy, offences possibly punishable by the death penalty. His crime? Promoting inter-faith dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians, seeking peaceful relations with Israel, and expressing concerns about extremist radical Islam. These views - published in the Bangladesh Weekly Blitz, which he edits - resulted in Choudhury first being arrested on November 29, 2003 at the Bangladesh National Airport as he was about to board a plane to attend a conference in Israel on the media's role in education for peace. Since Bangladeshi law forbids its citizens from visiting countries, such as Israel, with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations, Choudhury was originally cited for a violation of the Passport Act, which is usually sanctioned with an eight-dollar fine. But that was not the punishment meted out to Choudhury. Following his arrest, he was taken into custody and - as he has reported - was subsequently blindfolded, beaten and interrogated incessantly for 10 days in an attempt to coerce a confession that he was an Israeli "spy." Choudhury, who refused to "confess" to the false charge, for which no evidence was ever adduced, was charged two months later with "sedition," and was subsequently held for 16 months in solitary confinement in a Dhaka prison, without access to counsel or even medical treatment for a debilitating glaucoma. Choudhury was released on bail on April 30, 2005 after interventions by US human rights activist Dr. Richard L. Benkin's and Congressional involvement, together with protests by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Journalistes sans fronti res. Indeed, on September 29, 2005, he was awarded the "Freedom to Write" Award by Pen U.S.A., and in May 2006 he received the American Jewish Committee Moral Courage Award in absentia in Washington. Two days prior to the Award, Bangladesh officials rescinded his permission to travel and warned him not to leave the country. From July 2006 onward, as Choudhury reported to me, he became the target of continuous threats, intimidation and violence. For example, on July 6, 2006, his newspaper offices were bombed by an extremist Islamic organization after his newspaper published an article supportive of the Ahmadiyya Muslim minority. On September 18, 2006, a judge with alleged ties to an extremist Islamic party ruled that Choudhury was to stand trial for sedition, despite the fact that the Public Prosecutor had testified two days earlier that the government did not have evidence to proceed with the charges and was prepared to have them dropped. ON OCTOBER 5, 2006, Choudhury was attacked at his newspaper offices by a large group of individuals, including prominent members of the ruling Bangladesh National Party, was called an "agent of the Jews," and badly beaten. When he reported the attack to the police, no action was taken; on the contrary, after he lodged a formal complaint, the police responded by issuing an arrest warrant for him. It is not Choudhury who should be on trial; rather, it is the Bangladesh authorities who have violated his fundamental rights guaranteed under the Bangladesh Constitution, international treaties to which Bangladesh is a party, as well as the basic principles of criminal justice, including: a. the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; b. the right not to be arbitrarily arrested and detained; c. the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the nature of the charge, and the right to a prompt appearance before a judge to challenge the lawfulness of arrest and detention; d. the prohibition against torture and the right to humane conditions during detention; e. the right to protection against coercive interrogation; f. the right of access to legal counsel; g. the right to equal access to, and equality before, the courts; h. the right to a fair hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law; i. the right to freedom of religion and conscience; j. the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press; k. the right to freedom of association and assembly; and l. the right to freedom of movement, including the right to leave and re-enter the country. APART FROM these violations of Choudhury's fundamental rights under the Constitution and international treaty law - which are reasons enough to quash the charges even before the trial begins - the trumped-up charges themselves are devoid of any basis in fact or law. As well, there is a particular Canadian connection - and my own - to the Bangladesh Justice system and, therefore, to the Choudhury case. For Canada has been an active partner and participant in a Canada-Bangladesh Rule of Law project, including, in particular, joint initiatives to promote the protection of fundamental rights as well as "due process" principles and the rule of law in the Bangladesh criminal justice system. Indeed, during my tenure as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, I held two meetings with the Bangladesh Law Minister, Mouad Ahmed, in which the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights were prominent themes in our discussions. Moreover, Minister Ahmed, as he conveyed to me, had himself been a political prisoner, and therefore had an abiding interest in promoting the rule of law in Bangladesh. At the time of Choudhury's first arrest in 2003, a New York Times editorial characterized him as having "a rare virtue - he champions dialogue and decency in a culture hemmed in by extremism and corruption." The charges against Choudhury, said The New York Times editorial, are a "baseless sham." It went on to say, after describing the plight of journalists in Bangladesh: "Bangladesh may now be among the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. That makes Choudhury's courageous stand for Muslim-Jewish dialogue all the more admirable - and vital to defend." Three years later, Choudhury now faces possible death from this "baseless sham." It is vital now to defend Choudhury's rights as we defend the courageous stand that brought about his ordeal. It is not just Choudhury who is on trial; it is the Bangladesh legal system. And it is our voice that must now be heard on his behalf - and on behalf of Bangladesh justice. The writer is Member of Parliament for Mount Royal, a former minister of justice and attorney of Canada, and a professor of law at McGill University (on leave), he has acted on behalf of many political prisoners all over the world for many years.