Bangladesh: CPJ disturbed by journalist’s sedition trial

New York, March 3, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply troubled by sedition charges pending against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the tabloid weekly Blitz. Choudhury, who spent 17 months in jail before his release on bail in May 2005, is due to be tried in a Dhaka court next week.

Choudhury told CPJ he believes the prosecution is related to his journalistic work advocating improved relations between Israel and Muslim countries and promoting interfaith dialogue. His lawyer was informed on Wednesday that Dhaka’s Metropolitan Sessions Judge’s Court will hold a first hearing next week, Choudhury said. The charge of sedition can result in the death penalty.

“The use of sedition charges to retaliate against journalists for their work is incompatible with a democracy and critically undermines the ability of the press to report on political affairs,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Authorities should drop these trumped-up charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, return his passport, and ensure that he is free to work without fear of retribution.”

Choudhury was initially charged after trying to travel to Israel in November 2003 to participate in a conference with the Hebrew Writers Association. Bangladesh has no formal relations with Israel, and it is illegal for Bangladeshi citizens to travel there. The original passport violation was later dropped, though, and he was formally charged with sedition in February 2004. As further evidence for the sedition charges brought against Choudhury three months after his arrest, court authorities cited articles written by the journalist about the rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh.

Choudhury told CPJ that he suffers health problems as a result of his time in jail. Because authorities continue to hold his passport, he has been unable to travel abroad to receive medical treatment for eye problems that worsened in prison.

Following his release on bail, Choudhury resumed his editing position at Blitz but said that he remains under pressure from the government and extremist groups for his journalism and his perceived association with Israel. He has written articles against anti-Israeli attitudes in Muslim countries and about the spread of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh.

Choudhury said he received a death threat by telephone on February 26 from a man who identified himself as Bangla Bhai, the alias of Islamist militant leader Siddiqul Islam. Bangla Bhai was sentenced in absentia last month to 40 years in prison for a bomb attack that killed two judges in November 2005. Choudhury said that he received no response to his complaints to the police.

Journalists in Bangladesh are frequently threatened, attacked and harassed for their work. At last three journalists were injured in bomb blasts late last year targeting court buildings, and dozens received death threats in the wake of the attacks. Most of them had previously written about the activities of Islamist militant groups.