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Video evidence rejected in Indian doctor's sedition trial

Dr Binayak Sen, a world-renowned health worker and human rights activist accused of being a Maoist insurgent, says film helps prove claim that police planted evidence.

Dr Binayak Sen at the time of his arrest in Raipur in May 2007.
Dr Binayak Sen at the time of his arrest in Raipur in May 2007.

RAIPUR // An Indian judge has refused to look at crucial video evidence in the trial of a world-renowned health worker and human rights activist accused of being a Maoist insurgent.

Dr Binayak Sen, who has given more than 25 years of his life to helping the rural poor in the remote Indian state of Chhattisgarh, was arrested in May 2007 on charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy, making war against the nation, and knowingly using the proceeds of terrorism.

The state claims he is a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which is fighting a guerrilla war against the Indian state in the name of its poorest citizens. Chhattisgarh is at the centre of the war, accounting for one third of the 1,100 fatalities so far this year.

Dr Sen denies all the charges against him. Despite his incarceration, he was presented with the RR Keithan Gold medal by the Indian Academy of Social Sciences in December 2007 and the Jonathan Mann award for Health and Human Rights from the Global Health Council in 2008.

A letter signed by 22 Nobel laureates helped gain his release on bail in May 2009.

Dr Sen's trial is reaching its conclusion at the sessions court in the state capital of Raipur, with the defence section concluding yesterday.

In an earlier statement to the court, Dr Sen accused the government of persecuting him for highlighting civil rights abuses by police and state forces charged with eradicating the Maoist rebels.

"I am being made an example of by the state government of Chhattisgarh as a warning to others not to expose the patent trampling of human rights taking place in the state," Dr Sen said in his statement. "Documents have been fabricated by the police and false witnesses introduced in order to falsely implicate me."

Maoist insurgents emerged in the late 1960s as a series of violent revolts against landlords and the upper classes in rural areas of eastern and central India. The Maoist movement has been through a number of phases over the past 40 years, but has consistently called for the overthrow of the Indian state and the introduction of communism.

Its current phase began with the merger of several extremist groups to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004. The government says the Maoists have a presence in around a third of India's 626 districts. Chhattisgarh's combination of difficult terrain, poor governance and under-resourced security forces have allowed the Maoists to operate with relative autonomy in large swathes of the state. Exploitation of tribal and peasant communities by mining and industrial companies, and heavy-handed treatment by the police, have bolstered the movement.

A central part of Dr Sen's defence is a video recording of a police search carried out at his home at the time of his arrest. His wife had gained permission from a magistrate to film the raid, and Dr Sen's defence counsel told the court it clearly shows evidence being removed by police in "open plastic bags" rather than being sealed on the scene.

Since the only evidence against Dr Sen is a letter written to him from a Maoist leader, allegedly found during the raid, the defence argued the video was crucial to proving their claim that the letter was planted by the police.

However, the prosecution objected when it came to showing the video in court on Friday, and the objection was upheld by Judge BS Verma. No grounds were given for the objection or for the refusal to show the video. It remains unclear whether the judge will view the evidence privately at a later stage.

The police have chosen not to present their own recording of the search.

A policeman stationed in the court also ordered that foreign journalists could not take notes in court, and could do so only "at home".

During his defence, Dr Sen told the court that he came to Chhattisgarh in 1981, where he set up a rural hospital and a network of "barefoot nurses" to provide low-cost medical care to the remote tribes of the region.

He was also a leading member of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which campaigns against police violence and promotes freedom of speech and public accountability.

The PUCL has investigated a large number of human rights violations by security forces and the government in Chhattisgarh, particularly their support for an anti-Maoist militia known as Salwa Judum (meaning "purification hunt"), which began operating in 2005.

A report by the PUCL accused the government of supplying arms and money to the Salwa Judum. Dr Sen described the group in court as a "completely unaccountable vigilante force" which "led to the emptying of more than 600 villages, and the forced displacement of over 60,000 people". The group has since been officially disbanded, and a trial is currently taking place in the Supreme Court against the Chhattisgarh government for its role in supporting the militia.

Counsel arguments are due to take place in December, and a final verdict is expected after the winter recess in January. Judge Verma has the power to impose any sentence, up to the death penalty.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae