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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2004

THE ZEIT GIST

'I want to clear my name and the name of my country'

High-profile arrest, low-key release spells disaster for Bangladeshi businessman and his compatriots living in Japan


One morning Islam Mohamed Himu woke up to find the Japanese media camped outside his home, and plainclothes police officers banging on his front door.

News photo
Islam Mohamed Himu says that he has "lost it all" since his arrest. "I am zero... no, not zero, minus."

"They arrested me in front of my wife, in front of my children. My wife was crying, my daughter was crying, I was crying. I told them 'you have made a mistake' but they arrested me by force."

So began a Kafkaesque ordeal for the 33-year-old Bangladeshi. The morning of his arrest he woke up the proud father of two young children and a successful businessman. Twenty-four hours later he was being interrogated in a police cell and the world's media were linking his face and name with international terrorism.

Himu wasn't to see his wife, son and daughter for another seven weeks and one day.

He was interrogated from morning till night 6 days a week, first in Kanagawa, then for 20 straight days without a break in Tokyo.

During that time, the media speculated excitedly (and wrongly) over the reasons for his arrest: that Himu was an al-Qaeda cell leader; that he was a money launderer and spy for the terrorist organization. Yet when Himu was released he was charged with nothing more than employing two illegal aliens, and was fined 300,000 yen.

Yet the confirmation of his innocence was met with a deafening silence from the very same media that had loudly relayed details of the police's investigation.

He says that his business has been destroyed, his reputation left in tatters. "I can't even send anything by express mail. I try to use my company's name and they say they cannot do business (with me). People still think I am in al-Qaeda."

The first hint Himu had that something was amiss came about a week before his arrest when a TV crew turned up at his office with a photograph of a man they wanted to know if Himu recognized.

Himu remembered him only as "Samir," a man he had met at a mosque in Gunma Prefecture in 1999.

In fact, the man in the photo was Lionel Dumont, a French national suspected of being linked to al-Qaeda and attempting to set up a terrorist cell in Tokyo.

Dumont had lived freely in Japan for several years before being arrested in Germany and extradited to France and was one of several hundred customers for Himu's pre-paid telephone card business. Himu says he had no knowledge of Dumont's alleged al-Qaeda links.

Himu's lawyer, Takeshi Furukawa believes that "the police neglected Mr. Himu's human rights, and publicly announced the allegation of his being a member of al-Qaeda to the mass media, though this allegation was completely unrelated to the reasons given for his arrest."

In short, Furukawa says that the police deliberately leaked details of their investigation to the press and implied that Himu was guilty.

The question is why?

Furukawa believes it was an attempt to save face on the part of the police.

The police had been shown up by their failure to apprehend Dumont -- and apparently even to know that he had been in Japan. "It was probably a complete loss of face for the police," he says. "They had to show the public that they were dealing with foreigners properly as well . . . the police used the media."

On the day of his arrest, the Asahi Shimbun reported on the police's investigation of Himu's office opposite Yokosuka base.

The article had a surprisingly detailed account of the police's actions: an unnamed source in the Kanagawa police was quoted as saying that a foreigner had been seen observing the U.S. naval base through binoculars from Himu's fourth floor office -- something Himu's lawyer dismisses as "completely made-up."

Himu says he chose the location in order to sell phone-cards to soldiers and other foreign nationals at the base, and that, in any case, the view of the base from his office is almost completely obscured by a signboard.

The police for their part have issued a statement to the media saying that "an appropriate investigation took place in adherence with the law."

But Himu's arrest didn't just mean personal disaster for him.

In the following weeks, hundreds of Bangladeshis in Tokyo were singled out for police attention on account of their nationality. And members of the Bangladeshi community say that the numbers of illegal Bangladeshi workers arrested and deported in June was some three times the average monthly amount.

"The police just shut their eyes to the illegal workers because they are necessary to the economy, but when something happens they crack down," says Monzurul Huq, a Tokyo-based Bangladeshi journalist. "Bangladeshis were very afraid the whole time Himu was under arrest."

Since the Japanese media has largely left reports linking Himu to al-Qaeda uncorrected, Japanese people who knew relatively little about Bangladesh in the first place, now associate the country with terrorism.

"Japanese people know that Bangladesh is a poor country and that they are sending Bangladesh help, but suddenly Bangladeshi has been tainted with al-Qaeda."

The problems started the day after Himu was arrested, says Bangladeshi businessman Dulal Chowdhory. "One of my staff's mother came to the office and said her daughter would stop working (for me) because maybe Bangladeshis are involved with al-Qaeda."

Journalist Huq organized a news conference to help Himu tell his story to the Western media, but he questions why the Japanese media has largely failed to correct their mistakes. "No one has apologized . . . is it because Himu comes from a poor third world country?"

Himu says that when he calls friends and businesses connections they ask him not to call again, fearing trouble from the authorities.

His 3-year-old daughter is still has been affected by the shock of seeing 14 police officers enter their home and take her father away by force. Himu's mother in Bangladesh has been sick in hospital since she heard of his arrest.

"I lost my trust, my company. I lost the company I named after my son," says Himu. "What money I had, I lost it all. I am zero . . . no, not zero, minus."

Yet, one Bangladeshi friend has some cold comfort for Himu. Despite his ruined livelihood and reputation, it could be worse, she says.

"At least he is free. If they had found anything at all they thought was suspicious, he could be in Guantanamo now."

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