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
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
Zia resigned from the army. Together, they formed a grassroots party,
but when Moudud insisted that it must be democratic, he was sacked.
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."
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 clbre, 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.
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June.
John Pilger 2008