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NGO worker imprisoned in Bangladesh returns home to France

BarakaCity

A French NGO volunteer and Muslim convert who was imprisoned in Bangladesh for 70 days returned home to France on Sunday to a hero's welcome.

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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.

Moussa, 28, left for Bangladesh in December 2015 on a mission for BarakaCity, a French NGO whose mission statement calls it a humanitarian organisation that believes Islam “is a unifier of all cultures facing all difficulties”. His goal was to help the Rohingya people, a minority Muslim group that Amnesty International has called “the most persecuted people in the world”.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their native Burma after being subjected to decades of violence. But the Bangladesh government has not welcomed the Rohingya either, considering them illegal immigrants and restricting them to refugee camps.

While making his way to the Rohingya camps on December 22, Moussa was arrested 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”.

#FreeMoussa

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 later released but not allowed to leave the country.

Bangladesh dropped all charges against Moussa at the end of July.

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 Mokobé.

BarakaCity under investigation

But even as support for Moussa mounted, BarakaCity faced new controversy and renewed scrutiny. The NGO’s founder came under fire in January after he appeared unwilling to condemn the Islamic State (IS) group outright during an appearance on the French TV programme “Le Supplément”, according to French daily Le Monde.

The NGO – which has raised €16 million in donations since 2013, Le Monde says – first came under investigation when French authorities searched the group’s mosque the same day that BarakaCity dispatched 20 ambulances to Syria, FranceTV Info reported. BarakaCity was also investigated twice after the November 13 Paris attacks, with authorities searching the group’s offices and the home of its website developer. However, no charges were brought.

‘A just cause’

BarakaCity’s representatives say the French government was slow to act for Moussa’s release at first.

The group's president, Idriss Sihamedi, told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV station in January that Moussa had been unhappy with his initial meetings with the French consul in Bangladesh. Sihamedi said at the time that “the French government has yet to do anything” to help Moussa, adding that he was “a human rights worker who went to Bangladesh for a just cause”. Sihamedi also suggested that the government would have done more if Moussa were not Muslim.

However, after Moussa was released from prison in March, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared that Moussa had been “under normal consular protection”.

BarakaCity’s lawyer, Samim Bolaky, told FRANCE 24 that during the weeks and months following his arrest the French government took an increasing interest in Moussa’s case. During a trip to Bangladesh in January, Bolaky’s team was met by French consular officials and then received by representatives from the foreign ministry upon their return to France, Bolaky said.

“Ultimately, they were fully invested in his case,” Bolaky told FRANCE 24.

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