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Court grants bail for Indian doctor convicted of sedition

By Moni Basu, CNN
  • Dr. Binayak Sen worked among poor tribal peoples in eastern India
  • He was convicted for sedition for his ties to Maoist rebels
  • Sen has denied helping the guerrillas and is appealing his case
  • He is hailed as a hero for the poor and Nobel laureates have rushed to his defense

(CNN) -- India's Supreme Court granted bail Friday to a prominent village doctor sentenced to life for sedition for his ties to Maoist guerrillas.

The court's decision means that Dr. Binayak Sen, hailed as a champion of the poor in many circles, will be freed from jail while he appeals his case.

His wife and mother said they were extremely happy. His lawyer said he felt vindicated that the government appeared to be saying there was not enough evidence to prosecute Sen.

The court, however did not overturn the conviction. Sen will have to make his appeal in lower courts.

Sen and two others were found guilty of sedition and conspiracy in December for helping India's Maoist Naxalite movement, outlawed as terrorists and considered by the government as India's greatest internal security threat.

Sen, a pediatrician, had been working for three decades in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where he was considered a pioneer of public health in one of India's poorest areas.

He gained international recognition as a human rights defender and won several accolades including the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.

He was detained in 2007 for colluding with Maoist rebels and has been behind bars since then. Twenty-two Nobel laureates from around the world appealed for his release to the Indian authorities.

The government said he had met Naxalite leader Narayan Sanyal in jail and that he had taken his passion for helping people a step too far by serving as a conduit between Naxals.

Sen has acknowledged that the Naxals have voiced legitimate concerns of ordinary Indians but told India's Tehelka magazine that they are an "invalid and unsustainable movement."

He denies the charges and said he has never condoned the kind of violence perpetrated by the Maoist guerrillas, called Naxalites after Naxalbari, a village in neighboring West Bengal state where they originated in the late 1960s.

The Naxals waged a violent campaign to secure better living and working conditions for the working class and poor tribal people.

Over the years, they targeted Indian security forces in several impoverished eastern Indian states that have become known as the "Red Corridor."

The slow-churning war has killed about 2,000 people, including civilians.

But rights groups such as Amnesty International blasted Sen's conviction as a violation of international fair trial standards and said Binayak's sentence was likely to inflame tensions in an area already clouded by conflict.

The group said the charges were politically motivated because Sen reported the unlawful killings of tribal people by police and a private militia believed to be sponsored by the government to fight Maoist rebels.