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Dr. Binayak Sen, in Custody in India, Unable to Travel to U.S. to Accept Prestigious Human Rights Award

PHR Calls for the Immediate Release of Dr. Sen

For Immediate Release

May 14th, 2008 marked the First Anniversary of the arrest and detention of Dr. Binayak Sen, a physician and human rights activist detained by Indian Authorities for his alleged involvement with prisoners who are a part of the banned Communist Party. Dr. Sen, a pediatrician who has dedicated his life to the service of the poor and underprivileged in India has been imprisoned in Raipur, Chhattisgarh for nearly one year. His trial began on April 30th of this year. Informed observers believe that the arrest of Dr. Sen is an effort by the authorities to intimidate advocates for human rights, especially those of the poor, including marginalized tribal populations in India.

Dr. Sen with a small patient.

The Global Health Council announced on April 21st that Dr. Sen is the winner of the 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Leaders in the fields of health and human rights including Global Health Council President and CEO Nils Daulaire, Jim Yong Kim of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, as well as PHR's CEO Frank Donaghue signed a letter to Indian officials supporting the release of Dr. Sen to travel to Washington, DC to receive the award in person on May 29th, 2008.

Medical Work

From the commencement of his medical career, Dr. Sen has worked to improve conditions of the poor starting with his anti-tuberculosis work at the Friends Rural Center soon after his graduation from the Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. In the early 80's, Dr. Sen began working with iron ore mine workers and their trade union, the Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh (CMSSS), and along with this organization worked to set up the Shaheed Hospital, established in 1982. The hospital, created and run by mine workers, served not only their own medical needs, but also provided assistance to the local non-mining community[1].

In the early 90's, Dr. Binayak Sen along with his wife Dr. Ilina Sen founded a non-profit health and human rights organization, Rupantar[2]. Through this organization, Dr. Sen began the selection and training of community health workers, and his clinic in Bagrumnala has gained a reputation as a center with low-cost, effective treatment against malaria and tuberculosis in a region that was unassisted by the public health system of India. Rupantar's reach is currently spread across 20 villages, and its wide range of activities includes countering violence against women to promoting food security[3].

Guided by his experiences with Rupantar, in 2000, Dr. Sen served as a member of the Advisory Committee established by the Government of Chhattisgarh to direct the Mitanin Programme, a community-based health worker program which influenced the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) Program of the National Rural Health Mission, the chief health program of the Indian Government[4]. Dr. Suranjan Bhattacharji, Director of the Christian Medical College where Dr. Sen was a student stated in an interview, "[He is] one of the outstanding examples of the kind of compassionate and competent medical doctors that CMC strives to produce."

Since 1997 Dr. Sen has been involved with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), one of India's leading human rights organizations, and in 2002 was elected Vice-President of the National PUCL. Additionally, Dr. Sen serves as the General Secretary for the Chhattisgarh branch of the PUCL. According to Medico Friend Circle Dr. Sen "has organized fact-finding investigations at state level into human rights violations ranging from hunger deaths and dysentery epidemics, to the welfare and rights of under-trial prisoners, to custodial deaths and fake encounter killings…"[5]

Case Background

Dr. Sen has been accused of violating antiterrorism laws in Chhattisgarh, an Indian State experiencing escalating violence between armed Maoist groups and Salwa Judum, an armed anti-Maoist movement with suspected state support. As a leader of the PUCL, Dr. Sen has called for the state government to cease human rights abuses through the Salwa Judum. He has opposed the controversial Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, and has visited jails to monitor the health status of prisoners[6].

Indian authorities allege that the doctor transferred notes from an imprisoned Maoist leader, Narayan Sanyal, to another Maoist leader, Piyush Guha, arresting Dr. Sen under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), as the Communist Party of India is banned in Chhattisgarh. Dr. Sen denies these accusations stating that his visits to the prisons were constantly supervised by prison authorities, as required by the Jail Manual[7]. Dr. Bhattacharji, speaking of Dr. Sen's case and the violence that has overwhelmed Chhattisgarh stated, "Binayak has always condemned that violence. He has always insisted that violence will not solve any problems. He has been speaking up for poor people. In our country growth and development is not inclusive. He has been trying to remind civil society that we have a responsibility towards all, not some, and that has been an unpopular act."

As reported by the Medico Friends Circle, in the Raipur Jail where he is currently being held, Dr. Sen is kept in a barrack with several other prisoners and does not receive proper attention regarding his own medical conditions, including hypertension and gout. PHR is further concerned by reports that Dr. Sen has been kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time, and has suffered considerable weight loss[8]. Physicians for Human Rights, along with several prominent human rights organizations including Amnesty International have petitioned for the release of Dr. Binayak Sen unless he is charged with a recognizably criminal offense.

Dr. Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council, states, "He [Dr. Sen] staffed a hospital created by and funded by impoverished mine workers, and he has spent his lifetime educating people about health practices and civil liberties – providing information that has saved lives and improved conditions for thousands of people. His good works need to be recognized as a major contribution to India and global health; he is certainly not a threat to state security."[9]

Recommended Actions

Physicians for Human Rights calls on the Chattisgarh Government to:

  • Immediately release Dr. Sen unless he is charged with a recognizably criminal offense.
  • Allow Dr. Sen to travel to Washington, DC to receive the Jonathan Mann Award on May 29th, 2008.
  • Provide adequate medical care for Dr. Sen while he remains in detention.

[1] Release Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends Medico Circle. February, 2008.
[2] 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights: Dr. Binayak Sen. Global Health Council.
[3] Release Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends Medico Circle. February, 2008.
[4] Release Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends Medico Circle. February, 2008.
[5] Release Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends Medico Circle. February, 2008.
[6] India: Fair Trial Doubtful for Honored Right Advocate. Human Rights Watch, April 29, 2008.
[7] Release Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends Medico Circle. February, 2008.
[8] Release Dr. Binayak Sen. Friends Medico Circle. February, 2008.
[9] Jailed Indian Pediatrician Wins 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Global Health Council Press Release, April 21, 2008.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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Kevin Short

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