The world-renowned health worker Binayak Sen was sentenced to life in prison yesterday of sedition and conspiracy and after being convicted of working with Maoist rebels.
A sessions court in the central state of Chhattisgarh found the doctor guilty of conspiring to establish an urban network for the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is fighting a guerrilla war against the state.
Two other defendants - Narayan Sanyal, described as a Maoist idealogue, and the Kolkata businessman Piyush Guha - were also found guilty.
Sen wept in court yesterday after the guilty verdict and his lawyer said he will appeal the decision.
A paediatrician and human-rights activist, Sen gained international recognition for his work with impoverished tribal communities in Chhattisgarh. In December 2007, seven months after his arrest, he was awarded the RR Keithan Gold medal by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences. The following year, he received the Jonathan Mann award for Health and Human Rights from the Global Health Council.
A letter signed by 22 Nobel laureates helped pressure the Indian Supreme Court into ordering his release on bail in May 2009.
But international protests and relentless condemnation from human-rights organisations were not enough to sway the sessions court judge in the small, heavily guarded courtroom in Raipur yesterday.
According to local media reports, the case against Sen hinged on the charge that he passed seditious letters between the other two defendants. Sen visited Sanyal in prison 33 times between May 26 and June 30, 2007, and passed letters from him to Piyush Guha, the prosecution said.
However, several jail officials appeared in court to testify that the meetings were strictly supervised. The defence argued that Sen visited Sanyal in his capacity as vice president of the People's Union of Civil Liberties, which investigates rights abuses by the state and security forces.
One of the more embarrassing moments for the prosecution came during the summations this month, when the public prosecutor TC Pandya tried to link Sen's wife, Ilina, to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and international terrorist groups, including the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and al Qa'eda.
As reported by the Times of India, Mr Pandya read an email in court from Mrs Sen to "some Fernandes of the ISI" that apparently made a reference to the White House.
"This may be code language... this perhaps means terrorists are annoyed with the US. We do not know who this Fernandes is, but ISI, as we all know, means Pakistan."
Unfortunately for the prosecution, the ISI in question turned out to be the Indian Social Institute. Mrs Sen told reporters that "Fernandes" possibly referred to Walter Fernandes, a former director of the Indian Social Institute, a social science research body set up by Jesuits in 1951 in New Delhi. Mr Fernandes later confirmed that he and Mrs Sen had been friends for many years and often exchanged emails on development issues.
Of more salience to the prosecution case was evidence that Sen and Sanyal had been acquainted long before either's arrest. The prosecution presented a landlord who said he had rented a house in Raipur to Sanyal on Sen's recommendation and that Sanyal was arrested there in January 2006. The defence countered with a police officer who stated that Sanyal had been arrested in the town of Bhadrachalam.
Throughout the trial, Sen had maintained his innocence and said the charges were designed to silence his civil-rights work. Sen had become increasingly critical of the state's war against the Maoists.
The Maoist insurgency - which has its roots in uprisings in the late 1960s - has intensified in recent years. There have been 1,152 fatalities this year, with Chhattisgarh accounting for about a third of deaths. By appealing to oppressed and brutalised minorities in India's poorest regions, the Maoist agenda often overlaps with civil-rights groups.
Sen's organisation had been particularly critical of the Salwa Judum, a tribal militia sponsored by the state to fight the Maoists, which has been associated with widespread human-rights abuses, including murder, rape and the burning of tribal villages. It was outlawed this year.