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INDIA: Life Term for Activist a Setback for Human Rights

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Dec 27 2010 (IPS) - The life sentence served on Dr Binayak Sen on charges of helping Maoist rebels in eastern India has rattled people and organisations fighting to strengthen human rights in a country that prides itself on being the world’s biggest democracy.

“This is a setback for human rights defenders in the country,” Amnesty International’s Ramesh Gopalakrishnan told IPS. “We have all along had concerns about the fairness of Sen’s trial and whether they met international standards.”

Sen had told IPS, during a meeting on Nov. 20, while out on bail, that he had apprehensions about his trial conducted by a sessions court in Raipur, capital of the largely tribal state of Chattisgarh and a centre for a three-decade old Maoist insurgency that has gripped central and eastern India.

“The case is appalling…It is worth an appeal,” said Maja Daruwalla, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, referring to the Dec. 24 sentencing.

“The whole Binayak Sen episode is an indication of the narrowness of the space available for dissent in this country,” Daruwalla told IPS. “While the sentence on Sen is bound to have a chilling effect it will make people more determined to defend civil liberties.”

The respected The Hindu newspaper said in an editorial that the judgment was “so over the top and outrageous that it calls into question the fundamentals of the Indian justice system.”

Gopalakrishnan said the “extreme and draconian” sentence has thrown a shadow over the fate of several human rights activists now facing legal proceedings for their work or statements.

Among these is the celebrated writer and rights activist Arundhati Roy, who has been charged by police in the national capital on Nov. 29 with sedition, under article 124 (a) of the Indian penal code, which earned Sen his life sentence.

Roy has also been charged with making “imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration,” and circulating rumours “with intent to cause mutiny or offence against public peace,” while addressing a seminar on Oct. 21, championing freedom for troubled northern Kashmir state.

“Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds. Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor roam free,” the Booker-prize winning author said in a statement, reacting to the furore triggered by her stand on Kashmir’s status.

Among the many campaigns Roy has been involved with, that have drawn international attention, is the one to have Sen released.

Sen was arrested in 2007 in Raipur on suspicion that he was passing on information to and from jailed Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, while treating him as a doctor. Sen has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Sanyal too has been charged with sedition as also Piyush Guha, a businessman charged with exchanging notes with Sanyal through Sen.

Hopes for Sen were raised in 2008 when Sen was awarded the Jonathan Man award for global health and human rights in recognition for his work, running health clinics in the neglected tribal villages of Chattisgarh.

As a champion of the cause of the tribals, Sen has consistently held that they were caught between the Maoists and the notorious Salwa Judum, a militia set against the insurgents by the provincial government.

Salwa Judum has been accused by the independent national People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) of using rape and arson to intimidate tribals and get them to vacate their settlements.

When some 700 villages in the Bijapur and Dantewada districts were forcefully emptied of their population of 350,000 people in 2005-2006, Sen, who represents the PUCL in Chattisgarh publicly criticised the provincial government, drawing its ire.

In May 2010, two years after his arrest, the Supreme Court intervened to question Sen’s long detention and secure his bail. Chattisgarh is run by a right-wing government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Gopalakrishnan said that, apart from appealing against Sen’s sentence in a higher court, Amnesty plans to revive an international campaign to secure his liberty that has drawn the support of 22 Nobel prize winners.

Maoist rebels say their armed struggle against the government, that has claimed thousands of lives, is being pursued to secure the rights of tribals and marginalised people in mineral-rich but impoverished eastern and central India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the four-decade-old Maoist rebellion as the biggest threat to India’s internal security, but his government has acknowledged that it had economic underpinnings and that there serious inequities to be bridged.

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