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Indian Human Rights Activist Dr. Binayak Sen Sentenced to Life in Prison in Widely Criticized Ruling

StoryDecember 28, 2010
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Renowned Indian physician and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life in prison on charges of sedition and conspiracy. Described as Indian’s most famous political prisoner, Dr. Sen is known as the “physician of the poor.” We play an interview with Dr. Sen, speaking while out on bail earlier this year, and we talk to his wife, Ilina Sen. [includes rush transcript]

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Web ExclusiveJan 28, 2011Democracy on Trial: The Imprisonment of Indian Human Rights Activist Dr. Binayak Sen
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The renowned Indian physician and human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life in prison. On Friday, Dr. Sen and two others were convicted in court in India on charges of sedition and conspiracy.

Described as India’s most famous political prisoner, Dr. Sen is known as the “physician of the poor.” He spent many years working as a doctor in the rural-tribal areas of Chhattisgarh in central India and reported on unlawful killings of indigenous people by the police and private militias. The region is the site of intensifying conflict between India’s central government and the Maoist Naxalites.

In May of 2007, Dr. Sen was charged under the the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act. The allegations against him ranged from helping the Maoist insurgency, being a member of a terrorist organization, to waging war against the Indian state.

In a statement released after his conviction, Amnesty International called Dr. Sen a “prisoner of conscience.” Asia-Pacific director Sam Zarifi said, quote, “This sentence will seriously intimidate other human rights defenders who would provide a peaceful outlet for the people’s grievances… Amnesty International believes that the charges against Dr. Sen are baseless and politically motivated,” the statement said.

Immediately after the sentencing Friday, Dr. Sen was taken back into custody. He had been free on bail since May of 2009. Earlier this year, Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat had a chance to speak with Dr. Sen by telephone while he was out on bail.

DR. BINAYAK SEN: I was incarcerated for reasons that were not personal. And the reason there was an international campaign for my release is because there was — because I was incarcerated in a public cause. That was the general perception. And certainly no criminal acts have been even alleged against me, so far. Whatever acts I have been, you know, charged with are basically political in nature. So I take it as given that my incarceration had a political basis. And as a political case, I cannot have an individual freedom. And there is enormous amount of oppression, expropriation taking place across the country, with which we are still engaged, engaging. And also large numbers of people are in jail for reasons that we believe have very little to do with their acts, any acts that they might have performed. So, ’til such events continue and until such events are weighed in the — you know, granted the justice they deserve, I cannot count myself as being free.

ANJALI KAMAT: Do you believe the situation in India has gotten better or worse since your release, in terms of respecting people’s rights to struggle for more sustainable development?

DR. BINAYAK SEN: Without doubt, the situation has got worse since my release, and it is continuing to get — to worsen. One is that there has now been a fairly open campaign against human rights workers and civil society workers of every description. The military campaign in the areas — in some areas of the country has been stepped up, and the degree of violence has increased. And not only that, we also believe that the structural violence and the kind of poverty and dispossession that characterizes the poorest section of the population have — those phenomena have also got worse. So, all in all, a pretty bleak scenario.

ANJALI KAMAT: And can you comment on this law, the UAPA anti-terror law, that’s being used to intimidate journalists and intellectuals and to silence people who try and talk to Maoists?

DR. BINAYAK SEN: It’s not only people who try and talk to Maoists, but, as you said, civil society activists in general are being targeted by the UAPA, which basically has — it tries to establish guilt by association. And people arrested under the UAPA know — in general, one remarks that there is no cogent, credible evidence brought against them. So, we have — acts like the UAPA have been opposed in the past. Acts like the UAPA have been taken back in the past. We also note — we should also note that the acts like the UAPA are not only being deployed in India, because they are — this is a much more general worldwide phenomenon that is occurring under the guise of the war against terror. And we strongly oppose the deployment of such laws.

ANJALI KAMAT: Dr. Sen, earlier this year, there was a lot of fanfare about the fact that there’s, you know, so many billionaires in India who had made it to the Forbes list of billionaires. Can you talk about the other India, what poverty and hunger look like over 60 years after independence?

DR. BINAYAK SEN: Thirty-three percent of the adult population of India have a body-mass index below 18.5, which signifies chronic under-nutrition. Forty-five percent of children in India are malnourished by weight-for-age criteria. So, simply on the basis of anthropometric figures, we find that there is chronic hunger at work in the land.

If we desegregate this figure of 33 percent of the adult population, we find that among those social categories who are held to be poorer — that is, for instance, the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes — 60 percent of the scheduled castes have a body-mass index below 60 — below 18.5, and 50 percent of the scheduled tribes have a body-mass index below 18.5. Now, these figures, these proportions bring the situation under the ambit of the WHO definition of a major public health emergency. In other words, we are talking about a famine here that is astray in the land.

And we are extremely apprehensive about the future of these sections of the population, who are also the ones who are being targeted in a massive drive for displacement and dispossession. These sections of the population are able to survive only because they are — they have access to common property resources, and when they are displaced and dispossessed from their access to common property resources, their situation worsens immediately. And we are very extremely apprehensive about the future health of these communities of malnourished people.

You started your question by talking about the Forbes billionaires. I think this is a mark of national shame, that there are people starving in this country and that the number of billionaires are going up. It’s nothing to be proud of. We are ashamed of it. Inequity is increasing all around.

ANJALI KAMAT: Dr. Sen, can you comment on the use of violence by both the Maoists and the state?

DR. BINAYAK SEN: Violence solves nothing. We have opposed the use of violence, deployment of violence, the conscious deployment of violence, planned deployment of violence, both by the state and by those who are opposing the state, like the Maoists. We have appealed for peace, and we believe that it’s only through engagement in a political dialog that any kind of resolution can occur. But the peace that we are asking for is not simply a cessation of violence; it also must encompass justice and equity as essential elements that need to be addressed before we can talk — we can think that peace has replaced violence. So we want peace, and we want just a peace that includes justice and equity for those who are suffering in this situation.

ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, Dr. Sen, we’re speaking to you from the United States. Can you comment on what you think the role of people in the United States can be, in terms of bringing light to these sorts of human rights violations in India, both from the people of the United States, but also how do you think the government of the United States is playing a role in relation to India’s development?

DR. BINAYAK SEN: Well, to begin with, I think that inequity is not restricted to India. A severe degree of inequity characterizes the scene in United States, as well. And I think that the United States — the people of the United States should pay — as I’m sure they are doing already, they should pay serious, serious attention to the reduction of inequity in their own economy and in their polity and in their social society.

The second thing is that the state — the state has a dual role. We see it as having a dual role in the present situation. One is as the agency responsible for bringing about inequity and for providing certain services in this — across the country, but also as a guarantor of expropriation and of oppression in all kinds of situations. And which of these two aspects is to prevail is something that the people of every country have to decide for themselves through active engagement with these political issues.

And so — and we also feel that these issues, in any country, in any nation, these issues cannot be resolved within a particular framework. We need to have an international solidarity across the borderless nations. And we appeal to our brothers and sisters in the United States to engage with these issues, just as we are engaging with them here in India, and to — so that we can build a peaceful and prosperous society together.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Binayak Sen, speaking to Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat in May. He has now been sentenced to life in prison. When we come back from the break, we'll speak to his wife on the phone in India, talking about the sentencing of Dr. Sen on Friday. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, joined on the telephone right now by Ilina Sen, Dr. Binayak Sen’s wife, joining us from India.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the sentencing of your husband to life in prison last Friday?

ILINA SEN: Yes. Definitely it was a complete shock, because we had not expected anything like this. We thought that since it was such a high-profile case and the state government of Chhattisgarh had staked their prestige on this, so we figured that they would find him guilty of something, although the evidence did not indicate any guilt, but we had no — you know, we did not think that they would pin the charge of sedition onto him and sentence him to the maximum punishment for that, which is a life term. It was totally, totally unexpected. And I think both he and I, our daughters and the rest of the family and all his friends were in complete shock.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he is now in prison, and you just saw him?

ILINA SEN: I saw him yesterday morning. And I want to tell you that he is confined in what is called a maximum-security area of the prison, which is basically solitary confinement. It’s a small courtyard with five cells, and he’s in one of them. The two other co-accused in his case are in two of the other cells, and there are two other prisoners whom I don’t know. So, five cells are occupied, and they’re let out for — into the courtyard only for about four hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, and that is it. And the rest of the time they’re locked away in the cell.

He is not allowed access to newspapers. And the guard told me that some of the other prisoners in this high-security area do get newspapers, but everything that is sensitive news is cut out with scissors. And any news relating to themselves or their cases or to the politics of India is cut out. So I imagine that Binayak has no idea that, you know, all over the world people are talking about him. And we, the people, have a lot of questions, at the minimum, and a lot of criticism, at the maximum, at the way in which he has been sentenced. But I don’t think he knows any of this.

AMY GOODMAN: He has been — he, as well as two others, have been convicted in court in India on charges of sedition and conspiracy. Can you respond to the conviction on these charges, on what they say he has done?

ILINA SEN: They say that he has couriered letters — it’s a very — it’s a wild story, that he couriered letters from a Maoist prisoner in jail, and through this couriering, many of the acts of violence that the Maoists are perpetrating in different parts of India have come to pass. So, in that sense, he forms part of the chain of conspiracy that has led to the Maoist violence. And it is all entirely based on circumstantial evidence.

The law relating to sedition in India is an old one. It’s a British law. And one of the earlier — a famous person who was sentenced to sedition was Mahatma Gandhi. And the judged who sentenced him sentenced him to prison for imprisonment for three years and said that “if the higher courts find that you are not guilty of sedition, I will be the happiest person. I’m just doing my duty.” So that was the situation in British India. In independent India, the world’s largest democracy, Binayak Sen, on very flimsy grounds and based entirely on circumstantial evidence — yes, he did visit the Maoist prisoner, but he did not courier letters.

The evidence in court clearly pointed out, clearly brought out the fact that he could not have done it. All the meetings that he had with this person were supervised meetings. The jailers have testified that the meetings took place in their prisons, there was no possibility that Binayak could courier letters. The unfortunate part of his conviction is that it is entirely based on the prosecution’s allegations. The cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses that our lawyers have done has totally — have been ignored totally. And our defense witnesses, who were put on and they testified to, for example, the fact that the house search was illegal and the documents that were seized at our house were carried away in an unsealed condition, none of these testimonies have been taken into account.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Dr. Binayak Sen, your husband’s life work, how he has spent his years as a doctor?

ILINA SEN: When he graduated from medical college, he had the option to be anywhere in the world. And many of his colleagues, many of his classmates are, I believe, living in the United States and professionally world-renowned. Binayak chose to work in India and chose to work among tribals. For a short time after he graduated, he taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University, but he found that too esoteric. He wanted to work with people. So he moved to this part of central India and designed health programs at various levels with a trade union, and later with tribal villages, training health workers and teaching them to look after as much of their health needs as possible, setting up mobile laboratories in an area that was endemic to falciparum malaria, where malaria was a killer disease. So, he spent all his life working with poor people on infectious diseases, not on esoteric medical conditions, and obviously did not make any money from his medical practice.

He got involved with human rights work. I think he became a member of the PUCL, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, during the emergency. But he was not a very active member until about five or six years ago, when the situation in Chhattisgarh became heavily polarized and the government started — the Chhattisgarh government started something called the Salwa Judum, which was a vigilante movement, vigilante armed — something that the state government was arming against the Maoists. But many of us felt that this had — this was leading to large-scale human rights violations and that there was a design in which the Salwa Judum put — pulled villagers out, to take people to relief camps, refugee camps. And the lands where the adivasi — where the tribals lived were extremely rich lands, and they had different kinds of minerals under the soil. And this was just a ground-clearing operation.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to read the words of the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, who has spoken out for the release of your husband, Dr. Binayak Sen, noting his conviction on sedition charges is a “ridiculous” use of the laws, Amartya Sen said. He expressed hope the Supreme Court would give relief to the activist. He said he is “outraged and upset” and that this is a “deep miscarriage of justice.” Can the Supreme Court set aside this ruling?

ILINA SEN: I believe this, but the road to the Supreme Court is long, because it has to go now to the state high court before it can get to the Supreme Court. I do believe that the legal system has the resilience to undo this kind of violence. It’s actually a violent travesty of justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilina Sen, we only have a few seconds. President Obama was just in India. Has the State Department weighed in? Have you been in touch with President Obama?

ILINA SEN: No, I have not. But I believe — I hope that our friends in the United States will, and I hope that people all over the world will bring pressure to bear upon the State Department of the United States, as well as upon the governments of their respective countries, to interact with the government of India, because the world is now a global village, and good governance is something that we all desire, all countries in the world. And there is no reason that the government of India can allow this kind of a miscarriage of justice to go on.

AMY GOODMAN: Ilina Sen, we will leave it there, but we will follow the — of course, the progression of your husband’s case. Dr. Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life in prison in India on sedition and conspiracy charges.

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