The life sentence handed down to Binayak Sen by a Chhattisgarh trial court on Friday is so over the top and outrageous that it calls into question the fundamentals of the Indian justice system. The trial judge shocked the conscience of the nation by finding the eminent doctor and rights activist guilty of sedition and conspiring to wage war against the state under Sections 120(B) and 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, Sections 8(1), (2), (3), and (5) of the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, and Section 39 (2) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (as amended in 2004). The fact that the Chhattisgarh police's case against Dr. Sen consisted of pretty thin material was taken into the realm of the absurd by the public prosecutor tying himself in knots in an attempt to burnish the doctor's alleged sins. So it was that an innocuous email message sent by his wife, Ilina, to the director of the Indian Social Institute — a Delhi-based institution which happens to share an acronym with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate — got converted into “suspicious communication” with the dreaded “ISI.” Another email referring to an occupant of the White House as a “chimpanzee” was introduced by the prosecutor as evidence of the kind of “code language” terrorists resort to. But tragically, it is the Chhattisgarh police that have had the last laugh in this round.
The broad charge against Dr. Sen of helping the banned Community Party of India (Maoist) wage war against the state was constructed by the police around the scaffolding of his supposed relationship with Narayan Sanyal, an alleged leader of the Maoists who was incarcerated in Raipur jail following his arrest in 2006. In his capacity as a medical doctor and head of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Dr. Sen often met Mr. Sanyal in jail but each of these meetings, as the jail authorities subsequently testified, was closely supervised and afforded no opportunity for the conveying of messages to the Maoist leadership. So the police hit upon the strategy of linking him to the recovery from Kolkata-based businessman Piyush Guha of a letter allegedly written by Mr. Sanyal. During the trial, the defence counsel pointed to numerous holes in the police case, including the introduction of an unsigned, typewritten letter supposedly sent by the Maoists to Dr. Sen, despite the fact that the letter found no mention in the attested list of documents recovered from his residence the same day. It goes without saying that Dr. Sen has the right to appeal the conviction and the savage sentence. The higher judiciary, which did not exactly cover itself in glory by denying him bail for nearly two years, must ensure the expeditious hearing of his appeal and grant him immediate bail till the end of the appeal process.