After two years of army-backed rule, Bangladesh emerged from its latest elections looking more like a free and democratic society than at any other time in recent memory. The elections were widely reported to be fair, and the voters overwhelmingly rejected fundamentalist candidates to make the secular Sheikh Hasina their clear leader. A more subtle litmus test for Bangladeshi democracy comes in the form of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, a courageous journalist and human-rights defender who speaks out against religious extremism -- and now finds himself on trial for sedition, treason and blasphemy.

By taking a principled stand for justice and peace, Mr. Choudhury has landed in the crosshairs of radical fundamentalists in Bangladesh and suffered the consequences. Not only has he been tortured by the government, he has also been attacked by fellow citizens. His newspaper offices have been bombed, he has been forcibly confined by a group seeking to interrogate him for being a "Zionist spy" and he has been repeatedly beaten. The police have not solved any of these crimes.

The violence against Mr. Choudhury resurrected itself after a hopeful lull. He was again assaulted as thugs entered his workplace and beat his staff on their way to him. They then dragged Mr. Choudhury and two co-workers into the street to beat them in broad daylight. The brutal assault left Mr. Choudhury with eye, neck and other injuries; thereafter, the assailants re-entered the office, took over Mr. Choudhury's laptop and refused to leave the premises. The police would take no action, and the assailants remained. They threatened further attack against Mr. Choudhury-- this time at his home--if he went to the police again.

Even more outrageous than this brutal attack is its institutional dimension: Mr. Choudhury is currently being blackmailed by a prominent adviser to the ruling Awami League, who has threatened severe "consequences" if Mr. Choudhury does not pay a ransom. The standing threat against Mr. Choudhury explains why his attackers this weekend so readily announced that they were members of the Awami League, taking great care to ensure that Mr. Choudhury recognized their pedigree.

Of course, the whole must be understood in the context of the most obvious institutional assault on Mr. Choudhury: the trumped-up charges that render him liable for the death penalty, if convicted. And what was his crime, allegedly committed back in 2003? Promoting inter-faith dialogue among Muslims, Jews and Christians, seeking peaceful relations with Israel and expressing concerns about extremist radical Islam. The public prosecutor has euphemistically described Mr. Choudhury's case as a "very sensitive" one touching on the "religious sentiments of the people of Bangladesh."

Sensitive indeed! Mr. Choudhury's brave refusal to acquiesce to radical fundamentalism led to his arbitrary detainment, his imprisonment in solitary confinement for over 15 months, and his torture. The New York Times described the entire case against Mr. Choudhury as a "baseless sham."

More than five years after being charged, Mr. Choudhury still awaits a full trial. Months ago, Mr. Choudhury was suddenly told his proceedings were finally beginning. Then, a government witness failed to show up and the court put the proceedings on hiatus. Now a new judge has replaced the previous one, and it is unclear when the trial will resume.

It is clear that the impunity with which Mr. Choudhury was dragged into the street and beaten, and the impunity with which he is denied a fair hearing, are related. Both of these oppressive acts flout the rule of law, not to mention the climate of freedom and accountability that should characterize modern democracies.

Western nations such as Canada have an important role to play in monitoring Mr. Choudhury's trial and holding Bangladesh to the promise borne out of its recent electoral rejection of fundamentalism. Indeed, we abdicate this responsibility at our own peril. Brave moderates like Mr. Choudhury are our best hope against popular descent into radicalism and terror.

What Mr. Choudhury has suffered so far is deplorable. But his case offers Bangladesh the possibility of finally ending this ugly chapter and improving its human rights performance, even if it cannot undo the wrongs Mr. Choudhury has already endured. Both Bangladeshi democracy and an innocent man's life are at stake.

-Irwin Cotler is international counsel for Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. A professor of law (on leave) at McGill University, he is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal, and the former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada.

[Weekly Blitz]


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