Intended for healthcare professionals


Doctors step up campaign for paediatrician imprisoned for a year without trial

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 22 May 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1155
  1. Ganapati Mudur
  1. 1New Delhi

    An international campaign for the release of an Indian paediatrician jailed for more than a year in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh has gained momentum, but doctors in India believe the movement needs to intensify its efforts.

    The state government arrested Binayak Sen on 14 May 2007, applying anti-terrorist laws and accusing him of helping an unlawful organisation and smuggling letters from an imprisoned Maoist leader (BMJ 2007;334:1184, doi:10.1136/bmj.39237.523206.4E).

    Public health professionals and human rights organisations worldwide have issued joint appeals seeking Dr Sen’s release and calling for a speedy, fair trial. Twenty two Nobel laureates wrote to the federal and state governments of India earlier this month, requesting that while the judicial process moves forward, the doctor be freed “to continue his important medical work.”

    The Global Health Council, an alliance of public health organisations, has awarded Dr Sen the 2008 Jonathan Mann award for global health and human rights.

    “We’re only asking that Sen be treated with dignity and be given a fair trial,” said George Chandy, professor of gastroenterology at the Christian Medical College in the southern town of Vellore where Sen had studied medicine and paediatrics.

    “We’ve been citing Sen’s work to our students, hoping it inspires young graduates to go and work for the needy,” Dr Chandy told the BMJ. “We believe he’s inspired a number of young people who’re serving in rural areas now.”

    After medical school and a stint as faculty member of community health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Dr Sen moved to rural central India where he initially worked with mine workers, helping them set up a hospital.

    Since the early 1990s, Dr Sen has been in Chhattisgarh where he helped spearhead a village health worker programme that has been replicated nationwide over the past two years under the national rural health mission.

    Dr Sen, however, had been urging the Chhattisgarh government to respect human rights in its campaign against armed Maoists called naxalites, highlighting human rights violations such as torture and extrajudicial killings.

    “Sen appears to be a victim of the Chhattisgarh government’s attempt to silence those who criticise its policies and failure to protect human rights in its fight against the naxalites,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

    “The campaign for Sen has primarily remained outside Chhattisgarh,” said Yogesh Jain, a paediatrician and member of a team of doctors preparing a report that will highlight Sen’s contributions to public health in Chhattisgarh, and the harm to local communities caused by his imprisonment. “The campaign needs more support from medical professionals,” Jain told the BMJ.

    Sen’s supporters believe his approach to community health has transcended the standard diagnosis, treatment, and prevention strategies practised in medicine.

    “For some doctors, service to the community is mending bodies and minds; others focus on prevention of disease, and issues such as nutrition and sanitation. Sen also looked at the impact of social disruption on the health of the people,” said Dr Jain.

    Four years ago, the Christian Medical College had awarded Dr Sen the Paul Harrison award, the highest honour the college bestows on former graduates for community service. In its citation, the college said: “He has broken the mould and redefined the possible role of the doctor in a broken and unjust society, holding the cause more precious than personal safety.”