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Life Sentence for Activist Indian Doctor Stokes Outrage

Protesters hold placards as they shout anti-government slogans in New Delhi during a protest against life sentence handed out to a doctor and social activist, Binayak Sen, 27 Dec 2010

Protesters hold placards as they shout anti-government slogans in New Delhi during a protest against life sentence handed out to a doctor and social activist, Binayak Sen, 27 Dec 2010

Outrage is mounting at the sentencing of an Indian children's doctor to life in prison in connection with his ties to Maoist groups. Dr. Binayak Sen won international acclaim for his work in improving the health of some of India's poorest toddlers and infants. Now, his case is the faultline for a debate about India's fundamental values.

A petition issued this week by U.S. University Professor Noam Chomsky and 81 prominent Indian academics, journalists, and filmmakers condemned the sentencing of Dr. Binayak Sen to life in prison as "savagery."

Sen is a pediatrician who spent decades working with the extreme poor in eastern India-- particularly in states where a violent Maoist insurgency has killed thousands of people since it arose in 1967.

Sen was arrested in 2007 and spent two years in jail before being released on bail. He was sentenced Friday by a local court on charges he passed messages for an imprisoned Maoist leader, and helped a Maoist group open a bank account. He denies that, and supporters say the evidence against him ranges from flimsy to outright fabricated.

Some Indians describe the insurgents as terrorists, and believe law enforcement should have the widest latitude possible to prosecute them and those that associate with them. However, protests have erupted around India to challenge the harshness of this particular verdict.

Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, attended a rally in Delhi this week, saying the verdict made him feel ashamed to be associated with the judiciary. He calls the verdict ridiculous and uncalled for, and says it is helping to whip up an atmosphere of intolerance in India.

Sachar is a former president of the Indian human rights group People's Union for Civil Liberties, of which Dr. Sen is a vice president. Sen's work with that group, and a community organization he founded with his wife earned him the prestigious Jonathan Mann award from the Global Health Council in 2008. Twenty-two Nobel Laureates led a push to have him temporarily released from jail to accept the award in Washington, but India refused.

Human rights group Amnesty International says the Sen verdict "mocks justice," and points out Sen has never been personally charged with an act of violence. Sen reaffirmed his committment to non-violence in a conversation with Amnesty last year.

"We do not see military action as legitimate or in any other way desirable...we need to emerge from the cycle of violence.. state violence versus Maoist violence-- we do not agree with any of the forms of violence which are being carried out right now in that area," he said.

Amnesty International warns the verdict will "seriously intimidate" other activists seeking peaceful solutions to India's extreme poverty.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, says the verdict raises questions about India's core values.

"India has two things that it claims as its greatest successes in democracy: one is its judiciary, and two is the freedom with which its civil society is allowed to operate. And this particular case actually challenges both," she said.

She says the laws on sedition and security under which Sen was convicted are vague, and can sometimes be too easily invoked.

"These are laws that we inherited from the colonial age - and claims of sedition in a democracy is something that we have to evaluate very, very cautiously," Ganguly explains.

Family members say they will appeal Binayak Sen's verdict to a higher court next month, and will move all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.