Dr. Binayak Sen’s life in danger, judiciary must intervene (Comment)

April 25th, 2009 - 11:12 am ICT by IANS  

By T. Jacob John
The Binayak Sen episode is already a blot on India’s reputation as a democracy that ensures human rights. And now it is set to become potentially an even more grievous case of denial of the right to life. Sen has been in jail as an ‘under-trial’ for over 23 months on incredible allegations of collusion in Naxalite violence in strife-torn Chhattisgarh.

The irony is that the accused is widely known, recognised and respected for his unflinching support for the human rights of the weaker sections of Chhattisgarh society, not to mention his long and self-denying medical service to the marginalized.

In that context, Sen, who manifestly believes in non-violence, raised his voice against state-sponsored violence. And he found himself at the receiving end of the wrath of a state self-empowered with draconian “special powers”.

The trial, already proceeding at a snail’s pace in a “fast track” court in Raipur, is now being further prolonged by the insertion of fresh accusations and induction of new witnesses - the prosecution witnesses were turning out to be unreliable or hostile and the original charges were becoming increasingly difficult to substantiate.

In the prevailing climate of fear of terrorism itself, Sen’s petitions for bail have not been viewed favourably. Thus, this 58-year-old humanitarian paediatrician is already being punished without being proven guilty, by what Justice Krishna Iyer has aptly termed “punishment by trial”.

But the details of the merits of the case should not be allowed to sidetrack the immediacy of Sen’s deteriorating health problem. He has a life-threatening heart ailment and the state has so far denied him the urgently needed medical attention and care.

Delay to treat poses risk to his life. Since December 2008 he has been experiencing symptoms of angina, indicative of coronary artery block(s). It seems that the prison authorities ignored the matter, although it should have been their duty to protect the health and life of any undertrial. Frustrated and fearing for life, in February 2009, Sen appealed to the court to allow him to be taken to Vellore for specialist medical attention. After some more delay, he was taken to the local district hospital.

Doctors recommended investigation by echocardiography which was not available there. On March 17, Sen again appealed to the court that appropriate medical care had been denied to him until then. The very next day, the court ordered that he be examined by a reputed local cardiologist. So, he was taken on March 25 to a local cardiologist who confirmed that Sen indeed had a life-threatening problem; his coronary arteries are narrowed and possibly blocked.

The cardiologist recommended, in writing, that Sen be referred to the specialty hospital of his choice, namely, Christian Medical College, Vellore - Sen’s alma mater. Yet, more than two months later, he is still languishing in Raipur Central Jail without the required and desired expert medical care. Coronary artery blocks can lead to sudden deterioration and should be considered medical emergency. Sen’s heart could be irreparably damaged or worse, while the three cornered exchanges among the judiciary, police and physicians “take their own course”.

Delaying treatment of coronary artery block(s), while fully aware of its dread consequences, amounts to deliberately endangering life.

Does a prisoner have the right to quality medical treatment? In the case of Rajan Pillai, who had a serious medical condition when jailed, was denied timely medical care and later died in prison. The state turned a temporary incarceration into a de-facto death sentence. The Justice Leila Seth Commission of Inquiry which examined the Rajan Pillai episode stated that the undertrial is entitled to medical care at an institution of the prisoner’s choice. Sen had requested medical treatment in CMC, Vellore, where India’s first cardiac catheterization was performed. This rightful and genuine request has so far not been granted.

Right to fair trial when accused and incarcerated by the police, right to healthcare when ill and right to life when life is threatened - these are inalienable provisions in India’s constitution and other rule books.

When those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring these to every citizen fail in the very same sacred duty, who can effectively redress Sen’s sad cry in court that “nobody seems to care whether I live or die”? Am I not justified in wondering if the police system might actually be desirous of Sen’s death through which the saga could be brought to a tragic end? In case that is the ‘game plan’, it needs to be examined and exposed , while the man is alive and it is in the power (and mandate) of the state to avert a tragedy.

Especially under the present preoccupations with the parliamentary elections, when media attention is all diverted, would this not be a fit case for the higher courts to take suo motu cognisance when the life of an illustrious citizen is imperiled by the state’s acts of omission and commission? The Indian judicial system must shine as well as its electoral system. There must be accountability on the part of state officials who take the right to life of citizens lightly.

(25.04.2009-Dr T Jacob John was one of Binayank Sen’s teachers and is head of Departments of Clinical Virology and Microbiology, CMC, Vellore, and past national president of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics. He can be contacted at tjacobjohn@yahoo.co.in)

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