The Mis-Trial of Dr Binayak Sen

Satya Sagar

Anyone trying to figure out, after the recent Mumbai attacks, whether India will ever win its war on terrorism should take a close look at a court case currently underway in the central Indian province of Chhattisgarh.

On 2nd December 2008, a High Court judge in Bilaspur summarily rejected a bail application filed by Dr Binayak Sen, well known public health and human rights activist currently detained in a Raipur jail, confounding all known principles of law, fair play and justice. As if that were not enough a few days later the provincial police authorities, taking their political vendetta against Dr Sen further, filed supplementary charges against him, adding on another 43 witnesses to the 83 already listed in the case.

While real terrorists plant bombs and shoot down people at whim in major Indian cities, scores of innocent young men, political dissidents and human rights activists like Dr Sen languish in the country’s prisons falsely accused of terrorist links and activities.

Dr Sen, has been behind bars since 14 May 2007 under a draconian anti-terrorist legislation, the Chhattisgarh State Public Security Act. The good doctor, renowned worldwide for his public health work among the rural poor, has been arrested on trumped up charges of ‘treason, waging war against the state and abetting activities of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist)’.

More specifically, state prosecutors claim Binayak, as part of an unproven conspiracy, passed on a set of letters from Narayan Sanyal, a senior Maoist leader in Raipur jail to Piyush Guha, a local businessman with allegedly close links to the left-wing extremists. He was supposed to have done this while visiting Sanyal in prison both in his capacity as a human rights activist and as a doctor treating him for various medical ailments.

The fact is that till now the trial of Dr Sen , which began in a Raipur sessions court late April 2008, has not thrown up even a shred of evidence to justify any of these charges against him. By end November 2008, of the 83 witnesses listed for deposition by the prosecution 16 were dropped by the prosecutors themselves, 6 declared ‘hostile’, while 30 others have deposed without corroborating any of the accusations against Dr Sen.

Dr Sen has never denied meeting Sanyal, which he did with prior permission and in the presence of jail authorities. To prove there was a ‘conspiracy’ the prosecutors for example have to establish that apart from meeting Sanyal in prison, Dr Sen also met Piyush Guha in person some time or the other, in order to pass on the letters. So far not a single prosecution witness has confirmed this charge and without the thread connecting him to Guha however there is no connection at all between Dr Sen and the cases against the other two defendants, Sanyal and Guha.

With the floor falling out of the entire case against Dr Sen, a desperate prosecution, during the course of the trial, has even been caught red handed by defence lawyers, trying to plant forged evidence of his ‘links’ with the Maoists. A number of witnesses too, under obvious tutelage from the police, have been found trying to ‘improve’ their original written statements presented to the court.

Even more distrubingly, in their attempt to keep Dr Sen in prison for as long as possible the court hearings themselves are being dragged on with breaks of up to a month or more at times thus making the trial itself a punishment. Several neutral observers following the case, including from the Commonwealth and the European Union, have expressed concern at the denial of Dr Sen’s right to an open and speedy trial.

Given the paucity of evidence in the trial of Dr Sen so far, in all fairness, the Raipur court should have dismissed the case against him altogether by now. Certainly the weakness of the prosecution’s position should entitle at least granting of bail to Dr Sen, a person of international standing and reputation, with a record of impeccable behaviour throughout his distinguished career. In May 2008, in an unprecedented move 22 Nobel Prize winners had even signed a public statement calling him a ‘professional colleague’ and asking for his release.

Normally bail is refused only in cases where the courts believe the accused can tamper with evidence, prejudice witnesses or run away. In Dr Sen’s case none of these apply as shown by the simple fact that at the time of his arrest last year he chose to come to the Chhattisgarh police voluntarily and made no attempt to abscond despite apprehensions of his possible detainment.

Last year too the same Bilaspur court had rejected a similar bail application after which on 10 December, the Indian Supreme Court in Delhi too had refused to admit a Special Leave Petition to consider bail. The Supreme Court bench initially heard the petition and even asked the Chhattisgarh government to file a reply but very mysteriously dismissed the same petition at its next hearing without any explanation.

The real ‘crime’ for which Dr Sen is being punished for is his courageous work exposing the human rights violations carried out by police forces in Chhattisgarh. As national vice president of the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties, one of India’s oldest human rights groups, Dr Sen produced several reports criticising the Chhattisgarh government’s ‘Salwa Judum’ campaign, which arms vigilante civilian groups to fight the Maoists.

The Salwa Judum campaign, according to many of its critics, is a thinly veiled attempt to relocate villagers – in the name of ‘protecting’ them from Maoists- while in fact plotting the handover of their land to corporations eyeing mineral wealth in the area. By focusing national attention on the brutalities accompanying this campaign Dr Sen obviously seems to have stepped on some powerful and sensitive toes somewhere.

Instead of recognising their social contributions the Indian State, by wrongly branding Dr Sen and many others like him as ‘terrorists’, is making a complete mockery of not just democratic norms and fair governance but its entire anti-terrorist strategy and operations. Detaining innocent people on false charges for political reasons, while turning a blind eye to real terrorists running amok all over the place is surely a recipe for perpetual disaster.

The subversion of the Indian judiciary for such political purposes constitutes an even graver threat to Indian society. The sheer injustice involved in bending principles of law is bound to fuel deep anger against the Indian State and breed cynicism about the credibility and efficacy of Indian democracy itself.

Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer, video maker based in New Delhi, India. He can be contacted at [email protected]