Two faces of persecution

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is a Bangladeshi journalist. He’s the editor of the weekly newspaper the Blitz. You’ve probably never heard of him. Even in Dacca, the only journalism he’s really known for is a thin portfolio of essays that counsel peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Juliet O’Neill is a Canadian journalist. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. She’s a seasoned reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. She’s most famous for having had her home raided two years ago by RCMP officers who confiscated notes, files, and computer disks, hoping to discover the identity of certain high-level intelligence-agency sources she’d been relying on for some blockbuster front-page stories.

If Choudhury and O’Neill were ever to find themselves competing for a bravery-in-journalism prize, O’Neill would lose. Hands down.

Choudhury’s newspaper was bombed last summer. Early this month, extremist thugs raided and looted the newspaper offices and Choudhury was beaten and robbed. Denied police protection, Choudhury went into hiding. On October 12, he emerged long enough to appear in court on charges that carry a sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment or death.

A week after Choudhury’s court appearance in Dacca, the Ontario Superior Court handed down a decision that sided with O’Neill in a court challenge her newspaper had waged against the constitutional legitimacy of the RCMP raid on O’Neill’s house. The Ottawa Citizen heralded its court victory with a headline taken directly from the reaction uttered by David Asper, the vice president of CanWest Global, which owns the Citizen and dozens of other major Canadian media properties: “The Brute Force of the State Met Its Match”.

The only Canadian case that comes close to Choudhury’s suffering is the agony of Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian engineer whose story looms over everything the O’Neill court case was about.

After certain RCMP officials provided American authorities with false information implicating Arar in terrorist activity, Arar was picked up while changing planes in New York in 2002. He was sent on to Damascus, where he was brutally tortured and kept in solitary confinement for much of the year he spent in prison there.

Choudhury’s troubles began around the same time. His brave work started getting him noticed outside Bangladesh, and he was invited to speak at a Hebrew Writers’ Association conference in Israel in 2003. He was arrested at the airport in Dacca before he could board his plane. He was jailed on charges of sedition and espionage, beaten, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for 16 months.

It was only after an international public outcry—mainly in the United States, where he was honoured with a PEN USA Freedom to Write Award—that Choudhury was released. But the phony charges against him were recently revived by a notorious Islamist judge, and it’s on those charges that Choudhury’s trial resumes next month.

It was also only after a public outcry, here in Canada, that Syrian authorities agreed to let Arar come home to Canada, in 2003. But rogue elements within the RCMP, hoping to cover their tracks in the case, immediately revived their smear campaign against Arar. They fed O’Neill and other journalists the most vicious and outrageous lies about him. Finding out who those rogues were was the main reason the RCMP raided O’Neill’s house two years ago.

Last month, the commission of inquiry into the Arar affair—the analysis and recommendations section alone is 376 pages long—found that there never was a shred of evidence against him after all. No secret al-Qaeda code name, no time spent in Afghan desert training camps, no facilitation of terrorism- logistics work in and around Ottawa, nothing. None of those things you read about Arar in the newspapers was true.

But Justice Dennis O’Connor didn’t just lay the blame for Arar’s destroyed reputation at the feet of rogue Mounties. O’Connor’s report is just as scathing about those same Canadian journalists who now crow about their valiant defiance of the “brute force” of the Canadian state in the Arar case. Their court challenge was all about defending their right to continue hiding the identities of the cops who told all those lies and caused Arar such suffering to begin with.

We all make mistakes. I don’t claim to be braver than Juliet O’Neill, and I make no charge of bad faith against her. The Georgia Straight is no braver than the Ottawa Citizen, either. We don’t need to be. Life is easy here. This is Canada. It’s not, say, Bangladesh, where 12 journalists have been murdered during the past four years, and where the dark shadow of Islamist extremism grows longer by the hour.

There is one small thing we might all do, though, to redeem the tawdriness of our vocation in this country, as an act of contrition for Maher Arar. Given its reach, CanWest Global could be particularly helpful in that one small thing.

It’s in the matter of a brave, 43-year-old journalist, with failing eyesight, who lives in fear for his life, as I write this, in Dacca, Bangladesh. The last time he was in trouble, it was an international public outcry that got him out of jail.

His name is Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.

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