On 25 December 2010, Dr Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison by a court in the state of Chhattisgarh, central India. Dr Sen is an internationally recognized human rights defender who received several awards in recognition of his work for more than two decades. He is a pioneer in providing accessible health care for Adivasis, the aboriginal populations of India, and mine workers in remote villages of Chhattisgarh.
With other members of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, one of India’s leading human rights organizations, he had highlighted unlawful killings and other serious human rights abuses against Adivasis in Chhattisgarh. These populations are particularly affected by the armed confrontations between, on the one hand, the security forces and the Salwa Judum, a private militia supported by the state authorities and, on the other, armed guerrillas of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
India’s central government itself has acknowledged that the intensifying armed conflict with the Maoists in central India is the result of serious inequities and a history of human rights violations in the area.
Human rights defenders have also gathered evidence showing that the Salwa Judum is actually a state-sponsored attempt to clear Maoists out of Chhattisgarh, ultimately giving companies better access to the state’s abundant natural resources.
Binayak Sen was detained for seven months without proper filing of charges, denied bail in the meantime, and kept in solitary confinement for three weeks in march-April 2008. The charges of sedition and conspiracy against him stem from laws that contravene international standards : the Chhattisgarh Special Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Those laws allow for arbitrary detention of anyone suspected of any relation with an unlawful organization. Repeated delays in the conduct of Dr Sen’s trial have also cast doubts about its fairness. He was immediately taken into custody after the announcement of the verdict. Dr Binayak Sen suffers from serious health problems that could rapidly worsen in detention.
The life sentence handed down against Dr Binayak Sen is likely to seriously intimidate other human rights defenders working on behalf of the Adivasi population, and it could further enflame tensions in the conflict-affected area.