- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Indian court’s decision to sentence an award-winning human rights activist and physician to life in prison on charges of sedition has caused an uproar among civil rights groups, who claim that evidence in the case was fabricated.

Dr. Binayak Sen was found guilty by the court in India’s Chhattisgarh state of carrying messages and setting up bank accounts for Maoist rebels.

Sen denies supporting the Maoists.

In an e-mail interview with The Washington Times, his wife, Ilina Sen, said she was “disappointed and disgusted” by the verdict.

Mrs. Sen said that two days before the Dec. 24 verdict was announced there was a spate of media reports that extra security forces had been deployed in advance of the judgment.

“How did the administration know that it would be an adverse and harsh verdict, unless it was involved in the process,” Mrs. Sen said. “The way in which the judiciary and the administration are working in tandem is also frightening.”

According to Amnesty International, the case violates international fair trial standards.

“Life in prison is an unusually harsh sentence for anyone, much less for an internationally recognized human rights defender who has never been charged with any act of violence,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.

Calling on state and federal authorities to drop “politically motivated charges” against Sen, Mr. Zarifi said the sentence would “seriously intimidate other human rights defenders who would provide a peaceful outlet for the people’s grievances, especially for the indigenous adivasi population.”

Sen works with poor tribal people in Chhattisgarh, where police and Maoist rebels have clashed repeatedly over the past seven years. He reported on the killings of tribal people by police and Salwa Judum, a private militia widely believed to be sponsored by the state to fight the Maoists.

“The judgment is appalling, upholding as it does charges of sedition against a man who struggled for the rights of India’s [tribal people] and one who, moreover, opted for a life among the voiceless,” said Teesta Setalvad, an India-based social activist.

Ms. Setalvad said the conviction sets a dangerous trend for India’s judiciary.

It sends a “warning signal to all those who struggle for the civil liberties and human rights of the disaffected and coming as it does from a court plunges human rights preservation and protection in the country to an all-time low,” she added.

Sen was first arrested in May of 2007 for his alleged links with a Maoist leader.

India’s Supreme Court ordered his release on bail two years later.

While in prison, Sen was awarded the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights for his services to poor and tribal communities and his commitment to civil liberties and human rights.

Prominent academics, including U.S. author Noam Chomsky and Indian historian Romila Thapar, have expressed outrage over Sen’s sentence.

“As a doctor he served the people with devotion and helped to save many lives; as a human rights activist he stood up in defense of the rights of the downtrodden. And yet he has been handed down this sentence whose savagery is unbelievable,” they said in a statement.

Their statement calls on the higher court to “hear his appeal expeditiously, must grant him immediate bail till the end of the appeal process, and must judge his case with enlightened reason.”

Mrs. Sen said the court based its judgment on police allegations against her husband, many of which had been discredited.

“In a neighboring country like Pakistan, it is the lawyers and judiciary that have stood like a rock against the advances of fascism. Here, the vicious sentence is justified on the ground that the Maoists are killing innocent men and women. … Where have we gone wrong in India?” she said.

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