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People are punished for crime, for creating anarchy and for putting humanity into horrifying terror. But, could we ever believe that someone would be arrested, tortured and imprisoned for long 17 months just for being in favor of global peace, inter-faith dialogue, ending religious hatred and thinking of everything good and noble for mankind? In my case it did happen and after being released on bail keeping the sedition charge very much alive. According to the allegations, my crime is: I am a living contradiction to today's phenomenon in the Muslim world, a Zionist, a defender of Israel and a devout, practicing Muslim living in the second largest Muslim country in the world.
The very first person I was in close contact in Israel was Dr. Ada Aharoni, a scholar and leader of International Forum for Literature and Culture of Peace (IFLAC). Then I came to know Dr. Richard Benkin, a person committed to the cause of peace and bravest of the braves I have ever seen in my long career as a journalist. Dr. Benkin is no more just only a friend, but my loving brother, with whom I am proud to be teamed to work. On 10th of January, 2005 when a Charge Sheet was issued against me, I was shocked to see names of Dr. Benkin and that of Dr. Ada as my contacts. I was really not sure how they would react! Anyway, I had to inform Dr. Benkin through my brother Sohail Choudhury. To my utter surprise, Dr. Benkin's reaction was, "I was with Shoaib, I am with Shoaib and I will be with Shoaib; no matter if I have to face a trial in any court within this world". I didn't want my brother Richard to face any hassle in a country where my fate was already uncertain. I communicated with my lawyer Barrister Shafiq Ahmed for his opinion if Benkin has to be in Dhaka? Mr. Shafiq replied, "Dr. Benkin is a US citizen, he can ignore Bangladeshi courts for obvious reasons".
This message was transmitted to Richard through Sohail. Richard again said if my brother can take the pain of being in prison and face trial for achieving a common goal, I can at least be in Bangladesh to see my brother and tell him "I am with you"!
Most of the Muslims in Bangladesh as in many of the other Muslim countries are under the impression that Jews are the ultimate enemies of Muslims and of Islam. My request to them, please visit Israel at least once, meet them (the Jews) or at least find one Jew anywhere in the world. Many Muslims believe that devils have embodied themselves in the Jews. I question those Muslim brothers and sisters, "ARE YOU TALKING OF HIGHER INTELLIGENCE?" If so, you can too merge with the higher intelligence if you just have a little more patience, tolerance and true pursuit for knowledge. If their question is again, how? My answer to them would be find a Jew like Dr. Ada Aharoni.
It is commonly believed: a Jew cannot be a friend of a Muslim. I promise in the name of Allah that I am not a Jew, and I again can say having Allah as witness, that I could never have a better friend than a Jew. My people termed me as an 'An Agent of Israel', while my friends in Israel made me feel I am a son of Israel! Now my eyes are really thirsty to have a look into the land of Israel, and I am sure, when I shall get back to Bangladesh, Israel will be in my mind forever.
On invitation from Dr. Ada, President of IFLAC and leader of the Hebrew Writers Association to attend a symposium on 30th November 2003, I was on my way to Tel Aviv. I just had checked in, though still had not cleared the immigration formalities, I was physically in Dhaka while spiritually in Israel. My heart was just eager to kiss and touch the holy soil of Israel, a country blessed by Allah. My whole entity was dancing with the thrills of this most desired trip. When I pushed my passport at the immigration desk, the inspector looked at me with fishy eyes, raised his eyebrows and silently he came out of the box and asked me to follow him to the room of a higher official. The officer told me in a cold voice, "You can not travel through this flight." Immediately my luggage was offloaded from the craft and opened in the presence of several officers for examining. Naturally excepting my personal belongings and a few gift items there was nothing inside. Still they searched my small travel bag and body and seized passport, tickets and cash three thousand dollars. Till then I was just witnessing everything with absolute surprise, but total silence. One of the officers told me, "Mr. Choudhury, you are arrested for attempting to travel to an enemy country". This time I had to speak. I asked, enemy country? How? Is Israel an enemy of Bangladesh? Is there any war going on between the two countries? The officer said, "No, but using a Bangladeshi passport you can not travel to Israel since we don't have any diplomatic relations with them". I said, Bangladesh doesn't have any diplomatic relations with Taiwan too. But why don't you interrupt anyone from traveling to that country? He replied, "Scenarios of the two are quite different. With Taiwan we do not have diplomatic relations just because to keep China happy. But the Israel issue is directly linked to our religious sentiment". I was getting annoyed, and questioned, religious sentiment? Why? Israel is not an enemy of Islam! The arguments did continue for some 20-25 minutes and then I was boarded in a police van. The Officer-in-charge of the airport police station took me inside Dhaka Cantonment and locked me in an isolated dark room. They went to my office and home; ransacked and seized all the computers and printers. They even did not spare my daughter's personal computer. They misbehaved with my mother and wife. I was inside the locked room for several hours before I was taken out during the late hours of the night. I was tired, exhausted and puzzled. Police took me to a room blind-folded where some people interrogated me. I told them boldly that my mission is peace and I stand firm on my position. They threatened me of dire consequences. And after couple of hours I was again returned to the dark room where lots of mosquitoes were thirsty to taste my blood. They provided me a piece of bread and water from the toilet tap. I was so hungry, I had to eat.
On the following day I was taken to the court of the metropolitan magistrate where my lawyers sought bail, whereas police asked for granting of 10-days remand for interrogation. The magistrate was not ready or even interested to listen to my lawyers and granted 7-days remand just in 2/3 minutes. In the name of interrogation they applied all the methods of barbaric torture. I could not see the people since I was always blindfolded. The series of interrogations and threats made me physically weak and mentally disturbed.
On December 8th, 2003 police sent me to the court without any specific case. Despite this fact, the court declined to grant me bail and sent me to Dhaka Central Jail. This time the greatest shock and surprise was awaiting for me, when jail authorities placed me at 'Mental-14' cell, which is meant to detain drug addicts and mentally insane. One long month I was forced to stay there and was denied even to take bath. Later when prestigious newspapers like The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, etc wrote editorial comments on me as well as influential organizations like Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) voiced in my favor, the jail authorities shifted me to Cell-15, which is a punishment cell for notorious criminals. My situation became precarious with every passing day. My health condition deteriorated markedly, where average temperatures soar above 45 degree Celsius and I was not allowed to use even an electric fan. Despite successive court orders to the Prisons Service, I was not given any treatment for glaucoma that I need badly. Outside, me and my family were deprived of a living: our businesses closed and looted. My family did enter into a very serious economic constraint and it had been extremely difficult for my family to pay the ongoing legal bills and cost of daily life. We had to sell off our assets to keep us survived at least.
My family tried frantically for my bail right from the lower courts to higher courts, but in vain. But such efforts also cost lot of money, which had to be managed through extremely difficult efforts. At this stage, knowing extreme economic constraint, my friend Dr. Richard Benkin managed to send eleven hundred dollars when my mother was in hospital apprehending that hospital bills should be an unbearable burden for us.
On 9th of August 2004, my mother died of massive heart attack. She was a diabetic as well heart patient. It was extremely difficult for her to bear the pain of my long imprisonment and total uncertainty of my release or bail. Right after my mother's death, application to grant me bail on parole was filed with the Ministry of Home Affairs, which granted me bail on parole 7-hours to attend momther's Janaza (funeral prayer) and burial. But at the last moment, I was not allowed to avail this bail on parole and members of my family were told that 'high-ups in the government had asked not to allow me to attend my mother's funeral'. Being in jail was definitely a serious pain and agony but non-allowance to attend my mother's funeral made me absolutely thundered and terribly shocked. I cried for hours in my lonely prison cell. Later on my wife submitted an application to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh telling her everything and requesting at least an inquiry to the matter of as to why I had not been allowed to be freed on bail on parole. The office of the Prime Minister initiated an inquiry, which ultimately went into cold storage leaving no result.
During late 2004, PENUSA accorded me honorary membership and all the esteemed members of this organization especially Ms. Eileen Moskowitz became very active for my release. PEN offices in a number of countries started writing to Bangladesh authorities demanding my release through letters and publishing of post cards. IFLAC had also launched an on-line petition page for my release. Ms. Ann Cooper and Ms. Abi Wright of CPJ tried to do everything within their capacity for me. And of course, under the active efforts of Dr. Benkin, a web site titled www.freechoudhury.com had been launched in May 2004. Honorable Congressman Mark Steven Kirk not only extended his precious support to me but also took this matter personally. He even met Bangladesh Ambassador in Washington along with Dr. Benkin and pressed my issue. Congressman Mark Kirk's bold initiatives virtually rocked the whole of Bangladesh administration. His actions were so effective that soon after his meeting with Bangladesh Ambassador, government representatives communicated with me. From their dramatically changed attitude I could feel that the government was in a mood of negotiation. I demanded diplomatic relationship with Israel and a favorable atmosphere for inter-faith dialogue. They got back with an answer that establishment of economic relationship at the initial stage was possible, which should begin in private level. It may be mentioned here that Bangladesh do not have diplomatic relationship with Taiwan too, but economic relations began initially in private level, which has now grown to a wider area. Even exchanges of top-level government delegations have begun between Dhaka and Taipei.
As to the issue of inter-faith dialogue, the government is ready to allow organizing seminars, symposiums, round tables etc right at this moment both on government and private levels.
Following a series of meetings, I got bail on 30th of April 2005 from the Judge Court. Right after my release I am communicating with local media to publicize the idea of establishing relations with Israel. I have already given interviews to a few local newspapers as well writing articles highlighting importance of Bangladesh-Israel relations, which are expected to be published soon. As we have been able to get a very positive response from the government, it is now time to spread our message to the masses through media absolutely controlled by us.
Salah Choudhury is a journalist, columnist, peace worker and Editor-Publisher of "English Weekly Blitz" published in Bangladesh. The authorities ransacked the office of the weekly causing suspension of its publication.
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