India’s Supreme Court has granted bail to a doctor and activist who is serving a life sentence, for what prosecutors say is his support of terrorist insurgents. The decision is raising hopes among his many supporters worldwide that his conviction may eventually be overturned.
Family members of Binayak Sen expressed relief and joy Friday, as word reached them that he would soon be free on bail. The 61-year-old pediatrician is serving a life sentence in a case that has rallied human rights groups and Nobel laureates to his side.
Prosecutors convinced a local court in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh that Sen provided support to members of the outlawed Maoist insurgent movement, including arranging financial accounts and rental contracts. He was found guilty of sedition last December, based mainly on pro-Maoist documents police say they found in his possession when they arrested him in 2007.
The Indian Supreme Court threw out the sedition charges Friday, saying the possession of such material may make him a “sympathizer” with insurgents, but does not deem him guilty of sedition.
Sen’s wife, Ilena, says she was struck by one particular line of reasoning judges gave for their dismissal of the sedition charge. Judges asked rhetorically whether someone who happened to own a copy of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography should be considered a Gandhian.
“And the answer is of course no. And it requires a remark like that to understand the ridiculousness of the charges that they are putting on my husband. I mean, just having the document does not make you a party member or even a sympathizer,” Sen said.
Sen’s lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, welcomed the court’s decision, saying it is consistent with Sen’s peaceful humanitarian work.
“In a democracy everybody has a right to exercise his right of freedom of speech. And Binayak Sen has not indulged in any kind of violence, nor has he ever pleaded with anybody that you must resort to violence,” Jethmalani explained.
The group Binayak Sen is accused of assisting, known here in India as Maoists or Naxals, became an organized movement in 1967 and is concentrated in central and eastern India. The rebel group claims its fighting for land and jobs for the poor. However, Maoists are blamed for the deaths of thousands of Indian civilians, soldiers, and police. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the insurgency the single biggest threat to India’s security.
Sen spent more than two decades working as a doctor in tribal areas of India, and his work treating tuberculosis among children earned him the prestigious Jonathan Mann award from the Global Health Council in 2008.
Amnesty International calls him a “prisoner of conscience,” and his life sentence has been derided as a political move to intimidate Naxal sympathizers.
Sen is expected to be free on bail in a matter of days, pending the formalities of his bail arrangement. He is likely to be forbidden to travel to Chhattisgarh, where an appeal of his case is pending in the state’s high court. His family says they will take his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. The eventual possibility of overturning Sen’s conviction is seen by many as more likely, following Friday’s Supreme Court session.