No Country for Good Men

Many governments grant themselves extra-judicial powers to deal with insurgency. But all too often, this power is used indiscriminately to silence any dissent. The imprisonment of renowned human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen is a classic example. On May 14 this year, he will complete one year without trial at the Raipur central jail in Chattisgarh.

Dr. Binayak Sen has worked for thirty years with the poorest adivasis (tribals) in Chhattisgarh. Through the unique Shaheed Hospital, the community-driven work of Rupantar and his broader involvement with Jan Swasthya Abhiyan - the Indian circle of the People's Health Movement, Dr. Sen has made healthcare available to people ignored by government and private systems.

As the area secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Dr. Sen uncovered many human rights violations by the state and other armed groups. He has highlighted starvation deaths, dysentery epidemics, poor conditions of under trial prisoners, custodial deaths and extra judicial killings. Dr. Sen has also worked on the issues of right to food, work, health and education. None of this bothered the government until he began criticizing the Salwa Judum - a private militia movement armed by the Chhattisgarh government to combat Maoist insurgency. Salwa Judum has contributed to a spiraling increase in violence and the displacement of thousands of tribals. Even the Supreme Court has issued a strong disapproval of the Salwa Judum, citing concerns similar to those raised by Dr. Sen.

On May 14, 2007, Dr. Sen was arrested in Raipur under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005 (CSPSA) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2004 (UAPA) on charges of sedition, conspiracy to wage war against the state and conspiracy to commit other offences. Denied bail and with many delays and restrictions of due process, the first phase of his trial finally took place, almost a year later, from April 30 to May 3, 2008. During the trial, the state prosecutor's witnesses fell apart under cross-examination and completely undermined the state's case so much that the prosecutor himself asked to have his own witnesses declared as hostile. The judge's decision is not known yet, but Binayak remains in jail. The next phase of the trial is expected to begin in late June.

Over the months, the state has added more and more items to a very long charge sheet in which they accused him of various preposterous things. The chief accusation was of smuggling a letter out of the jail from an accused Maoist prisoner whom Binayak was visiting in his capacity as PUCL secretary. There is of course no way this could have happened, as he was constantly accompanied by jail personnel on officially sanctioned prison visits. Not only that, but Dr. Sen has been made co-accused with that prisoner and another person who are accused of crimes against the state. So whatever they are charged with, he is also charged with; these are crimes that potentially carry the death penalty.

Meanwhile, ironically, the Global Health Council has just awarded Dr. Sen their prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights for 2008.

Dr. Sen is part of an alarming trend of arresting human rights activists in India for challenging state authority. Lachit Bordoloi, a human rights activist from Assam; Prashant Rahi, journalist from Uttarakhand; Govindan Kutty, editor of People's March in Kerala; Praful Jha, a journalist from Chhattisgarh; Vernon Gonsalves, an activist from Nasik; Arun Ferreira, Ashok Reddy, Dhanendra Bhurule, Naresh Bansode, activists from Vidarbha have all been charged under the UAPA and kept under prolonged detention without bail. Recently, Ajay TG, Dr. Sen's fellow activist, also from PUCL Chattisgarh, was also arrested under the CSPSA. The Indian government should give these activists a fair trial and repeal the draconian laws used to detain them.

Most importantly, the government should examine the concerns raised by these activists: India's furious growth rate is leaving the majority of Indians behind and creating huge disparities. The government should recognize and deal with the socioeconomic problems that contribute to the cycle of violence.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

On May 14 this year, a worldwide series of vigils, protests and free health clinics are being organized to highlight Dr. Sen's unjust imprisonment. Many organizations have endorsed this cause. Dr. Sen had better be walking free soon; governments may yield enormous force, but there is no force more powerful than good people coming together.

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