There is a decent, brave man sitting in a dungeon
in a country where the British Empire began, a country of poets, singers, artists,
free thinkers and petty tyrants. I have known him since a moonless night in
1971 when he led me clandestinely into what was then East Pakistan and is now
Bangladesh, past villages the Pakistani army had raped and razed. His name is
Moudud Ahmed and he was then a young lawyer who had defended the Bengali independence
leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. "Why have you come when even crows are afraid
to fly over our house," said Begum Mujib, the sheikh's wife. This was typical
of Moudud, whose tumultuous life carries more than a hint of Tom Paine.
As a schoolboy, Moudud wet his shirt with the blood of a young man killed demonstrating
against the imposition of "Urdu and only Urdu" as the official language
of Bangla-speaking East Pakistan. When the British attacked Egypt in 1956, he
tried to haul down the Union Jack at the British consulate in Dhaka, and was
bayoneted by police: a wound he still suffers. When Bangladesh – free Bengal
– was declared in 1971, Moudud brought a rally to its feet when he held up the
front page of the Daily Mirror, which carried my report beneath the headline,
"Birth of a Nation." "We are alive, but we are not yet free,"
he said, prophetically. Once in power, Sheikh Mujib turned on his own democrats
and held show trials at which Moudud was their indefatigable defender until
he himself was arrested. Assassination, coup and counter coup eventually led
to a parliamentary period led by Ziaur Rhaman, a liberation general with whom
Moudud agreed to serve as deputy prime minister on condition Rhaman resigned
from the army. Together, they formed a grassroots party, but when Moudud insisted
that it must be democratic, he was sacked.
Whenever he came to London, he would phone those of us who had reported the
liberation of Bangladesh and we would meet for a curry. His pinstriped suit
and Inns-of-Court manner belied his own enduring struggle and that of his homeland:
recurring floods and the conflict between feudalists and democrats and later,
fundamentalists. "I am the prime minister now," he once said, as if
we had not heard. Outspoken about his people's "right to social and economic
justice," especially women, he was duly arrested again, then won his parliamentary
seat from prison
On April 12 last year, late at night, 25 soldiers smashed into Moudud's house
in Dhaka. They had no warrant. They stripped his home and "rendered"
him, blindfolded, to a place known only as "the black hole." There,
he was interrogated and tortured and forced to sign a confession. He was finally
charged with the possession of alcohol – a few bottles of wine and cans of beer
had been found. The Supreme Court declared his prosecution and detention illegal.
This was ignored by the government, which calls itself a "caretaker"
administration, but is a front for a military dictatorship.
Moudud is suffering from a pituitary tumor and has been denied medication for
six months. He is terribly ill, says his wife, the poet Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud.
"Thousands of people have been detained for being activists, or just supporters,"
she said. "The country is a prison, and the world must know."
There are striking similarities between Moudud's case and that of Malaysian
opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who this week all but overturned the old, autocratic
regime. Both were framed in order to silence them. The difference is that Anwar
Ibrahim's case became an international cause celebre, whereas there is
only silence for Moudud Ahmed, locked in his cell, ill, without charge or trial.
In the next few days, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the "Chief Advisor" to
the caretaker government – in effect, the head of Bangladesh's government –
will visit London. He is said to have a meeting arranged at 10 Downing Street.
I and others have written to Dr. Fakhruddin, asking him to comply with the Supreme
Court's ruling and to release Moudud. He has not replied. If Gordon Brown's
recent pronouncements on liberty have a shred of meaning, it is the question
he must ask.