The quiet rendition of Moudud Ahmed

12 March 2008

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 flag 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 headed by Zia ur-Rahman, 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.

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 tumour 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 says. "The country is a prison, and the world must know."

There are striking similarities between Moudud's case and that of the 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 adviser" 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.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library