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Nobel Laureates Lobby for Release of Indian Activist


And we going to go next to India and to a plight of a man who says he wants to help others. He has won international awards for humanitarian work, and yet for the last year he's been in prison. His case has attracted the interest of the world's foremost academics and scientists, as NPR's Philip reeves reports.

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PHILIP REEVES: A small cluster of protestors gathers in New Delhi. They're in the heart of India's sprawling capital, not far from the seat of the federal government, and they're struggling to get their voices heard.

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REEVES: These people are here to highlight the case of a 58-year-old man languishing in jail 700 miles away. His name is Binayak Sen. Sen is a civil rights activist and a doctor. Much of India's booming and modernizing, but Maoist insurgents are active in a vast expanse of the country's rural areas, remote and impoverished places untouched by trickle down. Sen's accused of being one of those Maoists.

His fellow activists, like Kavita Shaviastiva, for example, say this is nonsense.

Ms. KAVITA SHAVIASTIVA (Activist): Everything is really rubbish. Waging war against states, conspiracy, sedition - I mean absolute rubbish.

REEVES: For a quarter of a century, Sen's worked in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. He's provided health care for very poor tribal communities. He's helped establish a hospital serving mine workers. Maoist insurgents, known in India as Naxalites, operate in nearly half of India's 28 states. They're more active in Chhattisgarh than anywhere else. Within the state's dense forests, the Maoists run a shadow government, emerging regularly to attack government installations and kill the security forces.

Siddharth Varadarajan, one of India's most distinguished journalists, says the states try to counter this by arming and funding a lethal militia, an outfit called Salwa Judum.

Mr. SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN (Journalist): And essentially its modus operandi consists of mobilizing villages from areas where the Maoists have a presence and arming them, and forcing other villagers to leave their villages so that their villages cannot function as safe havens for the Maoists.

REEVES: In the last few years, this militia has herded tens of thousands of these villages, who are tribal people, into camps. This is where Sen comes in. Sen's an official with a national civil liberties organization. He's publicly condemned the militia, the camps and the security forces, whom he's accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings.

His supporters say he's also spoken out against abuses by the Maoists. One year ago he was abruptly arrested by Chhattisgarh police and accused of carrying messages for the insurgents. Since then he's been held without bail under new and draconian state and federal anti-terror laws. Varadarajan says Sen's being targeted because of his civil rights work.

Mr. VARADARAJAN: Clearly, I think the Chhattisgarh government is unwilling to allow voices that are critical of some of its policies.

REEVES: Sen's trial has begun. Baijendra Kumar, spokesman for the Chhattisgarh government, says it's up the courts to decide the case, not protestors.

Mr. BAIJENDRA KUMAR: The government has got no vindictiveness as far as any kind of personal vendetta against anybody in this matter. The matter has gone to (unintelligible) the highest level.

REEVES: Concern about the Sen case is spreading far and wide. At a press conference to highlight her husband's case, Sen's wife Ilina reads out a list of names.

Ms. ILINA SEN: Eric Kandel, physiology and medicine, 2000. Sir Harold Kroto, chemistry, '96...

REEVES: These are Nobel laureates - 22 in all - who signed a letter to India's leaders, including the prime minister, calling for Sen's release so that he can carry on with his humanitarian work.

The letter says Sen seems to have been incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his human rights.

Elena says the case against her husband is baseless.

Ms. SEN: Clearly it's harassment. I mean, they know - I'm sure they know that, you know, the charges won't really stick. It's an entirely fabricated case. I'm sure he will be freed. I hope he will be freed soon.

REEVES: Freed soon enough, she hopes, for her husband to pick up a trophy. Sen has won a prestigious international award recognizing his health and human rights work from the Global Health Council. The ceremony's in Washington D.C. at the end of this month. She wants him to receive that award in person.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.