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Human rights group slams life sentence for Indian doctor

By Moni Basu, CNN
  • Dr. Binayak Sen is accused of helping Maoist rebels in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh
  • Sen, an award-winning public health specialist, denies the charges
  • Amnesty International said the charges of sedition and conspiracy were politically motivated

(CNN) -- A life sentence handed down to a rural pediatrician in the world's largest democracy had human rights activists screaming a mockery of justice Saturday.

A court in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh found Dr. Binayak Sen and two others guilty of sedition and conspiracy Friday for helping India's Maoist Naxalite movement. They were sentenced to life in jail.

Amnesty International blasted the court's actions as a violation of international fair trial standards and said Binayak's sentence was likely to enflame tensions in an area already clouded by conflict.

Amnesty said the charges were politically motivated because Sen reported the unlawful killings of tribal people by police and a private militia believed to be sponsored by the government to fight Maoist rebels.

"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.

"State and federal authorities in India should immediately drop these politically motivated charges against Dr. Sen and release him."

Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney general of India, also criticized the Sen verdict on CNN's sister network, CNN-IBN.

"It is a shocking judgement," he said. "There has been a complete misinterpretation of what sedition means. At this rate no human rights activist will be safe in the country."

Binayak's lawyers intend to appeal the sentence and Sorabjee said they have a good chance at succeeding in a higher court.

Three decades ago, Sen and his wife, Ilina, went to live and work in Chhattisgarh, where he was considered a pioneer of public health in one of India's poorest areas.

He gained international recognition as a human rights defender and won several accolades including the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Twenty-two Nobel laureates from around the world appealed for his release to the Indian authorities, including the prime minister and president.

Sen was detained in 2007 for colluding with Maoist rebels and has been behind bars since then.

He denies the charges and said he has never condoned the kind of violence perpetrated by the guerrillas, called Naxalites after Naxalbari, a village in neighboring West Bengal state where they originated in the late 1960s.

Since then, the Naxalites have been waging a violent campaign to secure better living and working conditions for the working class and poor tribal people.

Over the years, Naxal groups have targeted Indian security forces in several impoverished eastern Indian states that have become known as the "Red Corridor." The slow-churning war has killed about 2,000 people, including civilians.

In the past two days, four political activists were killed in West Bengal, said state police. Two were abducted and slain by suspected Naxals. Police arrested two rebels.

The Indian government outlawed the Naxals as terrorists and considers the movement the greatest internal security threat to the nation.

Sen was convicted of being a conduit between Naxals. The government said he had met Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal in jail, CNN-IBN said.

Sanyal and Piyush Guha, a businessman from Kolkata, were also sentenced to life in prison.

Sen has acknowledged that the Naxals have voiced legitimate concerns of ordinary Indians but told told India's Tehelka magazine that they are an "invalid and unsustainable movement."

The magazine described Sen's case this way:

"The story of Binayak Sen is the story of the dangerously thin ice India's democratic rights skim on. The story of every dangerous schism in India today: State versus people. Urban versus rural. Unbridled development versus human need. Blind law versus natural justice.

"It is the story of an India unraveling at the seams," Tehelka said. "The story of unjust things that happen -- unreported -- to thousands of innocent people, the story of unjust things waiting to happen to you and me, if we ever step off the rails of shining India to investigate what's happening in the rest of the country. Most of all, it is the story of what can be done to ordinary individuals when the State dons the garb of being under siege."

Sen's wife said she was disappointed and saddened by Indian justice.

"I can say with certainty that the evidence does not warrant this verdict and this conviction," Ilina Sen told CNN-IBN.

"One of the charges against Dr. Sen is conspiracy but I believe that conspiracy was really to frame him," she said. "I am sure if this case goes to any court that looks into the law, looks into the evidence and looks into the legal position, I am sure that the conviction will not hold."

CNN's Harmeet Shah Singh contributed to this report.