Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is Shoaib Choudhury's ordeal coming to an end?

Shoaib’s July 15 court appearance was surprisingly different from what we have experienced for months. With no warning to the defense, the government called three new witnesses. (Their only previous witness remained AWOL). Each testified briefly. The former Assistant Commissioner of Bangladesh’s Special Branch said Shoaib committed a crime by trying to go to Israel. He also said he committed the crime of hurting the "religious sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews." A non-governmental computer technician testified that the government seized Shoaib's computers but did not say what was found on it. He also got into a protracted discussion with Shoaib’s attorney about whether the items seized were computers, printers, or other peripherals. The Inspector of Police also accused Shoaib of breaking the law by trying to go to Israel. Shoaib’s attorney did get him to admit that Shoaib had no airplane ticket to Israel, however, alleging he was going to Bangkok and Singapore then on to Tel Aviv; an odd route even under Dhaka’s travel ban.

The point is that none of this is new or even compelling. If this is all the government 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 the day’s lame testimony. (The government seems to have finally given up on the false and easily-disproved allegation of a “Hello Tel Aviv” article since the judge asked for evidence of the allegation.) When Advocate Govinda said that Shoaib's crime was exposing the rise of radical Islam and its use of madrassas, Judge Bashir Ullah--and this might sound familiar--said he should be rewarded for that 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, because he knows our expectations of vindication will be dashed as were our previous hopes, or because he sees an end to Shoaib’s ordeal crowned with a not guilty verdict; is a matter of speculation. We seem to have gone through this before under previous governments only to be disappointed. But Shoaib believes that the government has decided to finish the trial, he expects 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.

If Shoaib is right, here is what we can expect. Once the government concludes its case, the court will set a date for "argument," or the defense's rebuttal. Once that is concluded, the judge will retire to determine verdicts and set a date when judgement will be read. Today’s events certainly made it seem that the government had despaired of presenting any serious evidence for the charge; a hopeful sign. We must remember, however, that if the real decision is to continuing placating the radicals, the lack of evidence will not factor into Shoaib’s fate. It certainly has not up till now.

Next date: July 22, 2009.

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