A French NGO volunteer and Muslim convert who was imprisoned in Bangladesh for 70 days returned home to France on Sunday. According to the group he worked for, his plight highlights tensions between Islamic NGOs and the French state.
Maxime Puemo Tchantchuing, better known by his adopted Muslim name Moussa Ibn Yacoub, returned to France after not only being imprisoned for 70 days but also being prevented from leaving Bangladesh for another four months. When he stepped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle international airport, Moussa was welcomed with cheers and applause from a crowd of about 100 people who had gathered to greet him.
But behind the happy homecoming, the NGO believes the way he was treated by the French state illustrates a wider problems between Islamic NGOs and the government.
Moussa, 28, left for Bangladesh in December 2015 on a mission for the BarakaCity, a French NGO that’s mission statement states it is a humanitarian organisation that believes Islam “is a unifier of all cultures facing all difficulties”. His goal was to help the Arakanese Rohingya people, a minority Muslim group that Amnesty International and UN have called “the most persecuted people in the world”.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their native Burma due to being subjected to decades of violence. But the Bangladesh government has not welcomed the Rohingya either, considering them illegal immigrants and restricting them to concentrated refugee camps.
While making his way to the Rohingya camps, Moussa was arrested on December 22 for “suspicious activities” and imprisoned. According to AFP, the authorities were concerned by the discrepancy between the name on his passport and the Muslim name he uses: Tchantchuing took the name Moussa after he converted to Islam.
He was also reprimanded for not reporting to the authorities upon his arrival. But doing so would have made his mission impossible, a BarakaCity representative told Al Jazeera in January, since Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “doesn’t want any humanitarian organisation to go anywhere near the Rohingya”.
Moussa spent more than two months in Bangladesh’s prisons under difficult conditions. In audio recordings posted on Twitter by BarakaCity, Moussa reported being cramped in a tiny cell with 40 other prisoners before being moved to solitary confinement. He was then released but not allowed to leave the country.
During his imprisonment, supporters launched a #FreeMoussa campaign in France. It gained support in his hometown of Montreuil – where a portrait of Moussa was hung in front of city hall – as well as from celebrities like popular French rapper Mokobe.
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