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24 April, 2008

Allow Dr. Binayak Sen to receive Jonathan Mann Award in person

The Global Health Council on 22 April 2008 announced that Dr. Binayak Sen of Chhattisgarh, India is conferred with the 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights.

The Global Health Council is the world's largest membership alliance of public health organizations and professionals working to improve health and save lives among the poor. The Jonathan Mann Award was established by the Global Health Council in 1999 to honour Dr. Jonathan Mann and to highlight the vital link between health and human rights.

Sponsored in 2007 by four organizations, Association François-Xavier Bagnoud, Doctors of the World, John Snow Inc. and the Global Health Council, the Award is bestowed annually to a leading practitioner in health and human rights.
Dr. Mann, who met with untimely death in a 1998 plane crash, is considered by many as one of the most important figures of the 20th century in the fight against global poverty, illness and social injustice. As the first director of the World Health Organization's Special Program on AIDS from 1986-1990, Dr. Mann pioneered the approach to AIDS that continues to shape public health policy today.

As a Professor of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University from 1990-1997, Dr. Mann began to articulate the ways in which the health of individuals and populations reflect access to basic human rights based on his years of experience as a public health practitioner and as a strategist. History will remember Dr. Mann for bringing to the world's attention the basic notion that improved health cannot be achieved without basic human rights, and that these rights are meaningless without adequate health.

A list of the 57 individuals worldwide who were nominated for the 2008 Mann Award can be viewed here. Of note and a matter of pride for India, nine of the 2008 nominees are Indians. They are Dr. Swami Hardas of Pune, Mr. Surya Makaria of Hyderabad, Mr. Deelip Mhaske of Mumbai, Dr. Ugrasen Pandey of Firozabad, Dr. Prameelamma Pedamali of Srikalahasti, Dr. Kamalesh Sarkar of Kolkata, Dr. Mukesh Shukla of Surendranagar, Dr. Diwakar Tejaswi of Patna, and Dr. Binayak Sen of Raipur.

In reviewing these distinguished nominees, the international jury of public health experts considered and evaluated several criteria including: practical work in the field and in difficult circumstances; actual relevance to the linkage of health with human rights; predominant activities in a developing country and with marginalised people; evidence of serious and long-term commitment; and potential for the Award to strengthen the nominee's work.

The Jonathan Mann Award along with three other awards (the Gates Award for Global Health, the Best Practices in Global Health Award, and the Excellence in Media Award for Global Health) will be presented to Dr. Sen in a formal ceremony during the annual meeting of the Global Health Council, which this year takes place in Washington, DC, USA.

Dr. Sen, alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, has devoted a lifetime to the healthcare of the tribal population of Chhattisgarh. Along with the legendary trade union leader Mr. Shankar Guha Niyogi, he founded the Shaheed Hospital in the mining town of Dalli Rajhara, an institution that till today continues the tradition of providing accessible and rational health care to the people. For the last fifteen years, Dr. Sen has worked in a remote tribal area treating those afflicted with chronic malnutrition, endemic malaria and other infectious diseases. He has also worked on issues of food and livelihood security, and has been the general Secretary of the State Unit of the Peoples' Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), as well as the National Vice President of the organisation.

In this capacity he is a vociferous critic of police excesses carried out by an unaccountable state and by the state sponsored vigilante Salwa Judum movement in Chhattisgarh that has led to civil war like conditions in large parts of southern Chhattisgarh. Dr. Sen has earlier received the Paul Harrison Award from his alma mater for his contributions in 'redefining health care in a broken society', and the R. R. Keithan Gold Medal from the Indian Academy of Social Sciences for 'a fresh and radical interpretation of Gandhiji's core concerns'.

Unfortunately and as it is well known within India, Dr. Sen has been incarcerated in the Raipur Central Jail in Chhattisgarh on charges of being a supporter of the banned Maoist party for almost one year, and is soon to stand trial on charges under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005.

In a letter to the President of India, the Prime Minister of India, and to the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Dr. Nils Dulaire (president and chief executive officer of the Global Health Council) has written:

Dr. Sen was selected for this honor by an international jury of public health experts on the basis of his years of service in poor and tribal communities in India, his effective leadership in establishing self-sustaining health care services where none existed, and his unwavering commitment to civil liberties and human rights. His long history of selfless service and this Award's recognition are commendations that we hope will be celebrated by India's leaders and citizens.

The irony of course is that Dr. Sen is now in his twelfth month of imprisonment without trial in Raipur. This is of deep concern to the global health community. Therefore those signing on to the statement attached here felt it important to bring this matter to your attention and to kindly request that you consider how means could be found to allow Dr. Sen to attend the award's ceremony in Washington, DC, on May 29th, 2008.

We wish to be clear: it is not our intent to interfere with the judicial process. We simply request that this doctor's good works and highly regarded reputation as a man of science and service, and his international following, serve as guarantee of his obligation to return to India to participate in a just and fair judicial process after the awards ceremony, if his case is not resolved sooner.

The world is watching this case. Some have expressed concern that it might represent a dwindling respect for civil liberties in India. We believe, however, that allowing Dr. Sen to attend the award's ceremony would send a strong signal internationally that would help to restore faith that India and its states are indeed committed to fairly addressing this and other cases related to civil conflicts and civil liberties. Dr. Binayak Sen's travel to the United States for this purpose would pose no threat to the security of Chhattisgarh or the integrity of the Indian judicial system.

Please consider finding the means to allow him to receive his award in person.

Dr. Sen is the tenth individual to be honoured by the Global Health Council. Previous awardees are: Dr. Bogaletch Gabre, a champion of women's rights who is a pioneer in eradicating the practice of female genital excision in Ethiopia (2007); Dr. Juan Canales, who helped marginalised peasants and indigenous communities in conflict-ridden areas of El Salvador and Mexico to gain their human right to health care by establishing community medicine and public health programmes (2006); Prof. Abdel Mohammad Gerais who advocated for and established reproductive health services to those most in need in Egypt (2005); Dr. Sima Sahar who led innovative programs in health, education, construction, relief, and income generation to improve the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan (2004); Mr. Zackie Achmat and Dr. Frenk Guni, who have worked to raise awareness and advocate for equity of people with HIV/AIDS in South Africa and Zimbabwe (2003); Dr. Ruchama Marton and Mr. Salah Haj Yehya, associated with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel for providing volunteer health care in the occupied territories of the West Bank (2002); Dr. Gao Yaojie, a gynaecologist involved in HIV/AIDS care and prevention work in China (2002); Dr. Flora Brovina and Dr. Vjosa Dobruna who worked with refugees in the Kosovo conflict and now with women and children victims of war crimes in Kosovo (2000); and Dr. Cynthia Maung who committed her life to healing victims of human rights abuses in Burma (1999).

An interesting parallel is that one of Dr. Flora Brovina who was bestowed with the same award in the year 2000 was also in prison at the time she was selected for the award. Dr. Brovina is the founder and director of the League of Albanian women in Kosovo, and at the time the award was presented, Dr. Brovina was imprisoned in Serbia. The world community dedicated to health and human rights celebrated her release on November 1, 2000 after 18 months of imprisonment on charges that she committed terrorist acts by helping refugees in the conflict in Kosovo.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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