Nobel Laureates Unable to Win Release of Doctor

The Indian government refused to release activist Binayak Sen, who was honored with the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.
The Indian government refused to release activist Binayak Sen, who was honored with the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. (Associated Press)
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 30, 2008

An international effort led by Nobel laureates has failed to secure the release of a prominent Indian doctor and activist who was honored in Washington yesterday with the prestigious 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.

Binayak Sen, who has worked with the poorest of the poor in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh, has been a vocal critic of the government's use of armed groups to push villagers out of mineral-rich forests to boost development. He was jailed in April 2007 on sedition charges, including allegedly being linked to Maoist rebels and smuggling a letter for an accused Maoist prisoner he had visited.

Sen, 58, has denied committing any crimes. He has said the letter incident could not have happened because he was always accompanied by jail personnel on his officially sanctioned prison visits.

On May 9, 22 Nobel laureates wrote a letter urging India's president and prime minister to release Sen in time to accept the award in Washington. The letter expressed a "grave concern that Dr. Sen appears to be solely incarcerated for peacefully exercising his fundamental rights."

The letter also suggested that the two internal security laws under which Sen was charged do "not comport with international human rights standards."

Referring to the letter, N.N. Baijendera Kumar, a spokesman for the Chhattisgarh government, said that "there appears to be a move to decide judicial matters in an extrajudicial way," the Associated Press reported.

"Those demanding his release don't have respect for law," he said.

Sen has spoken out against human rights violations committed by the state and armed groups, highlighting poor prison conditions, deaths of suspects in custody and extrajudicial killings. He has also criticized a pro-government militia called the Salwa Judum, armed to suppress Maoist insurgents.

Sen was responsible for drawing up one of the most successful community-based health-care models in India, based on the traditional mitanin, a health worker who advises the rural poor on preventive care. He has made health care available to many who had lacked access.

Sen's wife, Ilina Sen, also a doctor, was to attend the Global Health Council's Annual International Conference on Global Health here this week and accept the award on his behalf.

Binayak Sen told the publication the National that the Chhattisgarh government arrested him to send a message to other rights activists.

"Where is the proof that the road that Binayak was taking led to Maoism?" Sen asked, referring to himself. "He was talking about health care and food, and he was critical of the Salwa Judum. So he was a dangerous person. . . . Friends have kept me going: Personal friends who believe in our work and believe in the positive positions we have taken."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company