Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hey Sheikh Hasina, no one's forgotten Shoaib Choudhury!

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury’s struggle once played out in dramatic events: his 2003 arrest; my storming Washington’s Bangladeshi embassy in 2004; his 2005 release after a tense meeting involving Bangladesh’s ambassador, US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL), and me; middle of the night battles to prevent his re-incarceration; international accolades for the Islamic world’s only “Muslim Zionist” and supportive resolutions from the US Congress and others in 2006 and 2007. But five and a half years since Shoaib’s arrest, things have settled into a Kafkaesque holding pattern with no end in sight. As one Washington insider quipped, "The Bangladeshis have made the process the punishment."

In 2003, Shoaib Choudhury broke Bangladesh's blackout on positive, or even objective news and information about Israel and the Jewish people. The ever more powerful Islamists there were already furious with him for exposing their rise to power and use of madrassas, or Muslim religious schools, to radicalize young Bangladeshis. So, for doing nothing more than his profession as a journalist, they engineered his arrest and torture, getting the government to try in vain to extract a false confession from him that he was an Israeli spy.

After 17 months, with the help of US Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL), I succeeded in forcing his release, but though multiple government officials have promised to drop the charges against him--charges they admit are false--the charges remain. More than one Bangladeshi official also admitted that they fear dropping the charges because they do not want to anger Islamic radicals. No less an expert than Professor Irwin Cotler--former Canadian Law Minister and attorney for luminaries like Nelson Mandela and Andrei Sakharov--has identified over a dozen violations of Bangladeshi law in their prosecution of Shoaib Choudhury.

Yet, May 26th marked his 50th court appearance in the 49 months since his release. As usual, he was forced to wait outside for hours only to be told that his case was continued because the government’s sole witness did not show. This is draining his economic and emotional resources; the possibility of reincarnation or even execution is ever present.

His defenders have tired of waiting and are ready to do battle again--just as we forced Bangladesh's notorious RAB to release him last year after only a few tense hours. We will continue to oppose--successfully--all legislation designed to reward Bangladesh with tariff relief or other trade benefits when its government continues to play fast and loose with human rights while allowing Islamists to take over every social institution in the country. We will seek to implement Foreign Ops language that would strip Bangladesh of US aid for its defiance of international outrage and norms of civilization. And we will look to exclude Bangladesh from participating in UN Peacekeeping Missions since it cannot even keep the peace within its own borders.

To appease Islamic radicals and reward its own cronies, the Bangladesh government has continuedthis false prosecution--not so much at their own expense, but at the expense of their people. Their willful infliction of misery on their own people is contrary to what every civilized people expects of its government.

We have stood by Shoaib for five and a half years, and we have no intention of abandoning him--not now, not ever.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day, 2009

This is Memorial Day weekend in the United States. It is a time of a three-day weekend and respite from work on Monday. But the purpose of that respite is to honor those Americans who have fought and died in the cause of freedom. As we hear people try to minimize or even stand in opposition to what they accomplished, we should remember that people worldwide live in freedom today because of them. Without them, the two great scourges of the twentieth century--fascism and communism--might have triumphed; thanks to them, they did not.

The march of freedom worldwide over the past decades--freedom from colonialism, genuine imperialism, and despotism--has been possible only because of their sacrifice; and the sacrifice of citizens from other nations as well. On Memorial Day, I honor them, too.

Today, we face another scourge with the same objectives as fascism and communism: to force their own version of life on the rest of the world, and to grab the power that comes with it. Right now, there are people fighting and dying to stop them. And so on Memorial Day, 2009, I think of them, too, and pledge to stand and defend theirhonor when others try to besmirch their sacrifice. It's the least they deserve.

To all of those who died in the cause of freedom, I offer my humble prayers and sincere thanks.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Concern Mounting again for pro-Israel Muslim, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

The fact that the fight for Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury has reached an impasse should lead no one to conclude that his defenders have given up. Not a week goes by when I do not receive at least one interrogatory about it; and even as I have been speaking about saving the Bangladeshi Hindus from government-tolerated discrimination, the host always begins by asking me for an update on Shoaib.

Calls and emails come from media and from average citizens wanting to know if he is all right and what they can do to help. And people still ask about boycotting Bangladeshi goods, something I have opposed to this point. And there is continued concern from governments, as well. The Australian Foreign Ministry expressed interest in meeting with me for an update on the case and to see what might be proper for it to do. In a recent letter to Australian Senator Ursula Stephens, it wrote that “The Australian Government will continue to encourage the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that Mr. Choudhury’s trial is conducted in an expeditious and transparent fashion in accordance with proper judicial process and that his human rights are respected at all times. A high ranking member of the ruling party, Stephens is close to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and has been an outspoken advocate for Shoaib Choudhury.

The Foreign Ministry’s letter points to the next phase of the international struggle for justice in this case. First focused on gaining Shoaib’s release from imprisonment and torture, we shifted after that success when several government officials admitted that the charges against him were “false…and only maintained to appease the radicals.” We exposed the truth behind the prosecution, but the former (BNP) government went forward with the case; and in doing so, decided their political need to “appease the radicals” was more important than the damage they were doing to the people of Bangladesh. Their decision has meant that every piece of legislation intended to provide tariff relief for Bangladeshi imports to the United States has been defeated. (The United States imports about 70 percent of Bangladesh’s garment exports, and has free trade agreements and other relationships with several garment exporting countries that are steadily eroding Bangladesh’s place in the US market as a result.) Several members of the Bangladeshi government were told that these consequences would follow their continued need to placate radicals, as “the American people do not intend to spend their money to support their enemies.”

Once the legal proceedings began, internationally famed human rights attorney Irwin Cotler filed an amicus curiae brief that identified almost two dozen ways in which the case violated Bangladesh’s own laws and international human rights laws. Dr. Cotler has defended such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, and Saad Ibrahim, as well as Shoaib Choudhury. Moreover, the proceedings have been carried out contrary to accepted principles of justice worldwide: in five and a half years since the charges were brought, the government has been unable to provide one shred of evidence to support them; on August 6, 2008, when it made a completely fictitious allegation alleged that Shoaib wrote an article entitled, “Hello Tel Aviv” for USA Today, the trial judge demanded proof of the article, or he would dismiss the case; the government never provided any, and the judge never raised the issue again. The government had one witness, the officer in charge of Shoaib’s 2003 arrest, and he has not shown up to testify for the past several court dates. There is a legal principle in civil societies world wide that “justice delayed is justice denied”; and so in any society of laws, the court would have issued a warrant for the witness to testify or dismissed the case. Bangladesh has done neither. These various illegal irregularities on the part of the Bangladeshi government, prompted one US official to suggest to me in April that “because they have no case against Shoaib, the Bangladeshis are making the legal process his punishment.”

Many people have wondered if Bangladesh’s Awami League government will break from the policies of its predecessor or continue them, making only cosmetic changes to enhance it own image. On January 12, several members of the US Congress (Republicans, Democrats, and committees that determine appropriations and trade legislation) sent a letter to the then newly elected Prime Minister. They congratulated Sheikh Hasina on her electoral victory and noted that her first step in bringing “democracy, integrity and prosperity to Bangladesh” should be “to quickly drop all charges against Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.” “Doing so,” they noted, “will take a significant step toward restoring faith in the Bangladeshi government and removing a significant obstacle in Bangladeshi-American relations.”

It has not, which means that Bangladeshi goods will continue to be assessed higher tariffs than those of its competitors. The fact that the Awami League government has done nothing to demonstrate that it is any different from is prompting some legal experts to explore a case against Bangladesh at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Others are looking to see if Shoaib’s persecution should exclude Bangladesh from UN peacekeeping forces.

In a meeting at the Bangladeshi Embassy in Washington, Ambassador M. Humayun Kabir addressed Bangladesh’s inability to gain favorable trade status in the US by asking me, “How can you hold up aid for 150 million people because of one man?”

“How can I? How can you?” I responded. “You’re the ones prosecuting a case you have admitted to be false. You’re the ones telling the rest of the world that you place the feelings of the radicals above your own laws. All you have to do is stop it. How can I? How can you do this to your people?”

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Does the US Support Pakistan over India?

From Nehru to Obama: Why the US supports Pakistan

Poll after poll shows that Americans view India, not Pakistan, as their ally; a kindred democracy fighting a common Islamist enemy. Nevertheless, when I was in India throughout March, the question I was asked most frequently was “Why is the United States supporting Pakistan?” Even before President Obama’s March 27 speech, trepidation had been building. Admitted supporters of the US President told me in Delhi’s Connaught Place that Obama’s pro-Pakistan tilt varied from their pre-election expectations. One aspiring journalist expressed a growing sentiment that Obama’s actions are meant to “insure that the American people are safe,” regardless of “lives of other people of other countries.” But Obama’s speech pledged an addition $1.5 annually to Pakistan and identified it—not India—as an ally in fighting the Taliban.

That baffled Indians since Pakistan has shown a decided inability and lack of desire to take on Islamist terrorists, while Indians have been laying down their lives in that struggle. Even Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher seemed uncomfortably aware of the inconsistency. Shortly after Obama spoke, a CNN-IBN correspondent asked Boucher if he thought the Pakistanis had the “ability and willingness” to fight the Taliban as Obama said they would.

“Let me put it this way,” Boucher replied. “We talked to all the senior people there…and they said they wanted to.”

They “wanted to”? That was Boucher’s ringing support? No wonder Indians are concerned. Many Americans are working to change that policy, but India has a role in that, too. For US policy can be traced in part to Indian decisions decades ago.

People in the US State Department are no different than their counterparts elsewhere. They depend on contacts and authoritative people “on the ground” worldwide; people with inside information and expertise impossible to garner from halfway around the world. In the 1950s, Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru made a critical decision to minimize contacts with the US and thereby gave Pakistan that exclusive role. In 1955, he founded the Non-Aligned Movement, which was nonaligned in name only. Look at Nehru’s cohorts: Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose Egypt was a major Soviet ally and large recipient of Soviet aid; and Josip Broz Tito, while a communist gadfly, solidly in that camp; Marxist Kwame Nkrumah; and Indonesia’s Sukarno, aligned with China and North Korea. India itself became dependent on Soviet aid and welcomed legions of Soviet advisors and experts. Only in the early 1990s did India realize it backed the wrong side in the Cold War and had to re-orient its policies.

For almost four decades, when US diplomats and advisors needed someone with inside information, they would call their contacts who all were Pakistani and who helped their careers. It is no wonder that experts advising Obama see the world through that Pakistani prism and believe them when they say they will fight the radicals. Those decades-long relationships still hold sway. Moreover, Indian leaders often allow their desire to be politically correct on other issues—such as Iraq and at times Israel—take precedence over Indian interests. But all is not lost.

Washington is a city crawling with lobbyists. Everyone has them, including India. The challenge facing them must be to make India Washington’s major source of information; to convince people to call an Indian, not a Pakistani, when they need good information about South Asia. That must be a priority for everyone from the Indian embassy to paid lobbyists and Indian officials who meet with their US counterparts. They also should push their own plans to counter Pakistan’s. For instance, Obama spoke of regional cooperation. Since Indian troops were so successful against Kashmiri terrorists, let them take on that fight, so Pakistan can move its troops from there to fight the Taliban. That only makes sense if Obama and the Pakistanis were serious about cooperating and fighting terrorists.

There are a myriad of ways to do it and people in the US ready for it. That is the challenge facing those who want to see a change in US policies in South Asia.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

More Empty Words from Bangladesh

I recently received an email from an individual involved in the struggle for minority rights in Bangladesh. It trumpeted “a new development” in the Bangladeshi government’s attitude toward minorities. But what was its evidence? A statement by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid that her “government believes in peace and prosperity of the mass of people, freedom of all religions and equal rights of people of all walks of life”; and a promise to repeal Bangladesh’s discriminatory laws.

When will people learn to look at one’s ACTIONS and not be lulled into complacency by their words? Complacency means disaster for the minorities.

I have heard the same pious-sounding statements from Bangladeshi officials of both major parties and none were ever reflected in action. I wondered why these leaders continued to say such things when all they did was confirm that the speakers were either unwilling or unable to carry out their promises, if not both. No one in Washington believes them anymore, as evidenced by the fact that knows that every single piece of legislation designed to give Bangladesh favorable trade status here failed. That government even sent Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunis to lobby for one of them, but the bill never even got out of committee. As long as Bangladeshi governments allow rampant oppression against minorities, they will remain so.

Yet, Hasina’s empty words are enough for those who ignore history and prefer to hope that she might be serious this time. Well, good for them; it’s nice to have hope. But “a new development”? Hardly. Hers was a statement to a visiting foreign; and if there was any substance to the countless hopeful statements that national leaders make when speaking to foreign dignitaries, our world would have long forgotten the scourges of war, poverty, and minority oppression. Even Adolf Hitler told foreign leaders in 1937 that Czechoslovakia was the last of his “territorial demands.”

Mouthing empty words is easy, taking action is not. And Hasina’s party has been as complicit in minority oppression as any. Both it and its more openly Islamist rival have shared equally in the spoils of it: minority land and property confiscated under Bangladesh’s racist Vested Property Act. Worse, attacks on Bangladeshi minorities have increased since the AL took power; and are carried out with the knowledge that the government will not stop them. I have interviewed dozens of victims (some who have been attacked as recently as February), and most report that local officials refused to help them or even participated in the attacks.

Unfortunately for the victims, those who should be forcing the government to keep its word seem content with the words alone. Bangladeshi Hindus have been reduced from almost one in five Bangladeshis at independence to less than one in ten today. Words will not protect those who remain, but if advocacy groups pretend they are, they will be condemning Bangladesh’s minorities to the same fate of non-Muslims in Pakistan; where those who have not been murdered, forced to convert, or forced out now pay the jizya for the “privilege” of being tolerated. Regardless of her words, Sheikh Hasina must be held accountable for what her government does. And if it lacks the will to act, people of goodwill need to help her get it. Otherwise, they all will be guilty of making minority oppression permanent.

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