The sham trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia is rightly being protested by those who have a right to do so: Russians in Russia, where more than a thousand people braved the batons of Kremlin storm-troopers to decry the travesty of justice in his recent conviction on more trumped-up charges. You do not have to warm to Khodorkovsky himself, a former oil oligarch who fell out with the power structure that enriched him, in order to denounce the thuggish authoritarianism that his persecution represents. I have courageous friends among those standing up in public against this injustice, putting their own bodies and livelihoods on the line, and I salute them, and all those standing with them.
There are, however, those denouncing the injustice of the Khodorkovsky trial who have absolutely no right to do so. Prominent among these, of course, is the Obama Administration, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the lead. Clinton, the foreign policy spokesperson for a government now raining death by drone on hundreds of civilians inside the sovereign territory of an American ally (among many other unjust and inhumane acts), thundered against the Kremlin for allowing “the rule of law [to be] overshadowed by political considerations.”
The grand poo-bahs of the Potomac lined up to condemn the Russian government for its barbaric treatment of Khodorkovsky — even while their own government was subjecting a 23-year-old soldier to KGB-style torture for the “crime” of telling the truth about outrageous atrocities committed by the American government in the course of an act of aggression that unleashed — and empowered — a living hell that has left more than a million people dead, and is still killing around 4,000 innocent civilians every year. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize this act of hyper-barbarism; Barack Obama has called the “surge” of death squads and ethnic cleansing that kept the war going “an extraordinary achievement.”
The brave citizens and residents of Moscow who came out to denounce Khodorkovsky’s show trial deserve all praise for their moral courage; but these bloodstained hacks of the Beltway have no standing whatsoever to inveigh against the offenses of other regimes.
The Obama administration has been loud in its denunciations of the Kremlin’s perversion of justice to carry out a political vendetta. But what have these stalwart champions of human rights said about the life sentence given last week to Indian human rights activist Binayak Sen? What have we heard from the Nobel Peace Laureate, Barack Obama? What have we heard from Hillary Clinton? Not a single word.
As the Guardian reports, Sen is a “celebrated human rights activist and medical doctor, has worked for more than three decades as a doctor in the tribal-dominated areas of the state of Chhattisgarh in central India, working for people denied many of the basic services that the state should provide, such as health and education.” The people he works among are among the poorest on earth. Sen is also an avowed practitioner of non-violence, walking in the path of Gandhi.
Sen is also a leading civil rights activist, who has spoken out repeatedly and forcefully against the depredations of the state government, which has launched savage “counterterrorism” operations the Maoist movement spawned by the dire poverty. These “counterterror” methods include the creation of a deadly paramilitary force, the Salwa Judum, or “Purification Hunt.’
As Jawed Naqvi reports in Dawn, “the Judum was founded not so much to track or hunt down Maoist rebels as to clear the passage of local resistance groups to enable corporate access to Chhattisgarh’s largely untapped mineral resources.” Sen’s chief “crime” seems to have been his vocal opposition to the state-run militia’s atrocities. The official charge was that he visited an elderly prisoner who is alleged to be a Communist, and carried letters from the prison for him. As Naqvi notes, the “evidence” against Sen was threadbare, circumstantial and in some cases obviously fabricated, just as in the Khodorkovsky case.
What’s more, Sen was charged under an ancient law originally imposed on India by its British colonial masters. As Kalpana Sharma notes in the Guardian:
More than 150 years ago, the British introduced a law in India designed to check rebellious natives. In 2010 this law has been used by an independent India to check activists who question government policy.
Section 124A of the Indian penal code was introduced in 1870 by the British to deal with sedition. It was later used to convict Mahatma Gandhi. ..Sen worked among the poorest and most deprived people in India, the Adivasis. The Maoists have also established their base in the tribal belt stretching through the heart of India. Their concerns are similar; their strategies diametrically opposite.
..Denied bail for two years, Sen was finally allowed out on bail last year. On December 24, a case that on all counts was weak and based on hearsay and circumstantial evidence, concluded. Sen was found guilty of sedition and other charges, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
They gave a life sentence to a man who has never raised a violent hand against the state or another human being. (He only narrowly avoided a death sentence for another charge: “waging war against the state.”) A life sentence — under a colonial law. This is the “democracy” praised by Barack Obama just a few weeks ago during a state visit to India, where he made sure to be seen paying homage to Gandhi — whose mantle of moral courage Obama himself claimed during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, declaring:
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But moral force means nothing when there is money to be made — from the corporate exploitation of Chhattisgarh’s resources or, in Obama’s case, from hawking $5 billion worth of death machinery from America’s war profiteers to the Indian government.
Protests against Sen’s sentence have broken out all over India. The injustice has also provoked denunciations across the world. Even the imperial house organ, the Washington Post, published a decent news story about the case on Wednesday. (Obviously the main editors are still off enjoying the holidays.) The article, by Emily Wax, actually provides some good context to the Sen case, the larger machinations behind it, and even — gasp! — some understanding of how generations of poverty, despair and exploitation can give rise to an “insurgency”:
In a case that has prompted denunciations by international human rights groups and scholars, prosecutors said Binayak Sen, 60, had aided Maoist rebels in rural India, visiting Maoist leaders in jail and opening a bank account for a Maoist, charges that Sen denies. Human rights activists allege that police planted evidence and manufactured testimonies, and Indian judges have criticized the Dec. 24 judgment.
Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney general, called the ruling shocking. “Binayak Sen has a fine record,” he said. “The evidence against him seems flimsy. The judge has misapplied the section. And in any case, the sentence is atrocious, savage.”
Sen, a pediatrician, has worked for decades to help people displaced by violence and government land seizures in India’s mineral-rich regions. Despite the country’s booming economy, hundreds of millions of Indians remain mired in poverty – a stubborn inequality that has helped fuel a deadly Maoist insurgency in as many as 20 of India’s 28 states.
…en, who was arrested in 2007 and was not granted bail for two years, says he was targeted solely because he was a vocal critic of the government’s use of armed groups to push villagers out of mineral-rich forest areas. His sentencing comes as major economies, including the United States and China, are seeking access to India’s growing markets – a sign of the country’s emergence as an economic superpower.
I’m afraid if Ms Wax keeps writing like this, addressing actual realities, she will soon find herself out of a job. For it is surely the pursuit of “access to India’s growing markets” — for well-connected elites, of course — that has led to the Peace Laureate’s voluminous silence on the case of Dr. Sen, and to the lack of reaction from the world’s scolding schoolmarm, Hillary Clinton.
Wax even slips this passage into the article: an observation that has growing resonance not only in India:
“Anyone in India who dissents or questions the superpower script is ostracized,” said Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, of which Sen is a vice president. “Sen’s arrest is happening because this government is extremely anti-poor. Our much-praised 9 percent growth is coming at the cost of displacing millions of people with land that is being given away for mining and corporate development.”
Wax concludes her piece with these damning quotes:
“Binayak Sen has never fired a gun. He probably does not know how to hold one,” historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in the Hindustan Times. “He has explicitly condemned Maoist violence, and even said of the armed revolutionaries that theirs is an invalid and unsustainable movement. His conviction will and should be challenged.”
Sen’s wife, also a doctor, said in an interview that she is launching an international campaign to do just that.
“He is a person who has worked for the poor of the country for 30 years,” Ilina Sen said. “If that person is found guilty of sedition activities when gangsters and scamsters are walking free, well, that’s a disgrace to our democracy.”
Yes, when gangsters and scamsters — and brazen war criminals — walk free, it is indeed a disgrace to democracy. A disgrace in India, a disgrace in the thug state of Russia — and a damnable disgrace in the United States of America, where hypocritical poltroons mouth empty pieties in their highly selective protests against injustices that pale before the crimes they are committing.