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The Evidence Against Dr Binayak Sen

The PTI reports today:

Rights activist Binayak Sen, Naxal ideologue Narayan Sanyal and Kolkata businessman Piyush Guha were today convicted for sedition and sentenced to life imprisonment for colluding with Maoists to establish a network to fight the state.

Additional District and Sessions Judge B P Verma held the trio, who were present in the jam-packed courtroom, guilty under provisions of section 124A (sedition)and 120 B (conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 8(1), (2), (3), and (5) of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, and Section 39 (2) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (as amended in 2004)

While I am yet to see the judgment, the Telegraph pointed out on December 17:

On the second day of the prosecution’s arguments, the public prosecutor attempted to prove that Mr Sen and his wife were part of an international terror network because Ms Sen had written an email to “one Fernandes from the ISI”. And what could this ISI be but Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence? But, as it turned out, ISI is the Indian Social Institute in Delhi, and Walter Fernandes its former head and a friend of the Sens. The court was also regaled with other suspicious bits from the Sens’ correspondence. “We have a chimpanzee in the White House” appearing in one of the messages indicated, according to the prosecution, that Mr Sen was using a code, as terrorists often do; and his wife addressed one of her correspondents as “Comrade”, as Maoists often do one another.

Another charge against Dr Sen was that he "acted as a courier" for Narayan Sanyal (said to be a Communist Party of India (Maoist) leader who has been in Raipur jail since 2006. While Dr Sen undoubtedly met Mr Sanyal in jail as an office bearer of the People's Union for Civil Liberties and also as a medical doctor, even the jail officials, the Superintendent and the Jailer, who were called as witnesses by the Prosecution, have ruled out the possibility of Dr Sen being a carrier of letters given to him by Narayan Sanyal.

Way back in 2007, Saikat Dutta had detailed the absurdity of the state's case by detailing the "evidence" and pointed out:

Dr Sen did meet Sanyal in jail on several occasions. But each time it was with due permission from the jail superintendent and a body search before and after his meetings. And even if we were to accept that Dr Sen smuggled the letters out, what exactly was "incriminating" in them? One letter deals with farmer-related issues, the letter writer's health and so on. In another note, Sanyal is discussing issues relating to his case and the approach his lawyer has taken in court. In yet another, he complains of there being "no magazines" to read in jail and terrible conditions in prison. Activist-lawyers like Prashant Bhushan see the framing of Dr Sen on such flimsy evidence as "a message that clearly states that people must shut their eyes to violations of human rights of the marginalised or risk arrest".

And then came the introduction of the "key evidence" -- an unsigned, (typewritten -- or, in some versions, computer print out -- but not handwritten)  letter that the police claim was sent by Maoists to Dr. Sen thanking him for his support. Interestingly, the police have no explanation for why even this "key evidence" was not included in the list of "attested documents" recovered from Dr Sen's house.  This letter, unlike other documents, Dr Sen's supporters point out, also does not bear any attesting signatures of either Dr Sen or the investigating officer.

We should remember of course that Dr Sen has already spent two years in prison. He was arrested in May 2007 and was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court in May 2009, despite the very same evidence -- all of which the SC had termed as circumstantial -- on which he has been convicted by the trial court. The issue here is not whether or not one is sympathetic to the Maoaist cause or against it. The issue is simply that of upholding the rule of law. Those who claim to be fighting the "meance of Maoism" should be disturbed even more as each of such cases only strengthens the hands of radicals who use these instances to point to the utter failure of the rule of law, indeed of the Republic itself.

Clearly, Dr Sen should and would go in appeal against the trial court's verdict, but what is important is that the higher judiciary, which had earlier not crowned itself with glory by denying him bail for two years, should at the least ensure that the appeal is heard expeditiously. 

Needless to say, there is need to say far more on the crying need for police and judicial reforms, as for every Dr Sen whose case atleast leads to widespread outrage and headlines, there are many others who languish in jails -- or worse -- unheard, unmourned.

Post Script: December 25

MJ Akbar adds:

The arrest of Binayak was converted into instant accusatory headlines. His trial was ignored by the press, which is why we do not know that there was virtually no substantive evidence. Suffice it to say that two of Binayak’s jailors, during his detention without bail, were declared hostile by the prosecution. Prosecuting lawyers are in the pay of government, as are the jailors. And yet two policemen refused to back the prosecution. A fabricated unsigned letter, apparently cooked up on a computer printout, seems to have been sufficient to convince the honourable guardians of our judicial system that Binayak Sen deserved a sentence reserved for only the most hardened murderer.

It is another matter that Binayak Sen, who was senior to me in school, was and remains the gentlest of people, distinguished only by a fierce commitment to his cause of choice. I do not agree with his political views or inclinations; nor does the political system. But it is only in a dictatorship that disagreement is sufficient reason for incarceration. India seems to be developing a two-tier democracy: generosity of the law for the privileged and vindictive, distorted application on the underprivileged.

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