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Indian Rights Activist, Freed on Bail, Vows to Continue Work

From the WSJ:
JUNE 1, 2009
By Krishna Pokharel

RAIPUR, India — Doctor and human-rights activist Binayak Sen, released on bail last week from the prison here where he had been held on charges of aiding Maoist insurgents, said he will continue treating patients from Indian tribal areas and fighting for their rights, despite weak health and threats to his life.

[Binayak Sen] Associated Press

Binayak Sen

Dr. Sen was arrested in May 2007 and jailed on charges of aiding the insurgents, known as Naxalites, in the state of Chhattisgarh by passing notes from a Maoist prisoner he was treating to someone outside the jail. He denies the charges; his trial is under way in Raipur.

“I will continue with my role as a doctor and human-rights activist,” Dr. Sen said. The 59-year-old said he “will work towards promotion of the agenda of peace.”

While in prison, his health deteriorated. “The way convicts are treated in the jails in India is very bad and I had to suffer the same,” he said. Dr. Sen said his incarceration was unjustified. “There is no explanation as to why I was put in prison and why I was refused bail repeatedly,” he said.

A spokesman for the Chhattisgarh state government said it isn’t the policy of the government to comment on the case or the trial. He said the government has tried to “adopt a multipronged approach to tackle the menace of Naxalism.”

Dr. Sen says it was his criticism of killings of civilians by a vigilante group that made him unpopular with the state. The group, Salwa Judum, is designed to counter the Maoist insurgency in villages. Dr. Sen says the main motive of the group, which he says has the state’s tacit backing, is to clear villages so the land can be quarried for iron ore, bauxite and diamonds.

Salwa Judum wasn’t reachable for comment. Representatives of the state government say the state doesn’t back the group, which they call a spontaneous movement by people defending themselves from the Naxalites.

About 100,000 villagers have been forced to migrate to neighboring states, and an additional 70,000 have moved into temporary camps because of the conflict, according to the human-rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties. Representatives for the state government declined to comment on the issue.

After coming to Chhattisgarh in 1981, Dr. Sen has focused on helping tribal Indians, among India’s most disadvantaged. In 2004, he became general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

Dr. Sen said the benefits of India’s economic boom haven’t trickled down to lower strata of society, which could lead to more unrest. He added he is optimistic the new national government will make efforts to prevent that.

Since his release, Dr. Sen said, he and his family have received anonymous death threats, but he plans to stay put. “I am not going to leave Chhattisgarh,” he said.