Internet crime is rapidly becoming a major focus for authorities around the world, but the case of an Indian student, jailed in the US nearly three years ago, is being seen as a major test of human rights in the country.
He was locked up for allegedly threatening the American president George W. Bush via his internet blog.
Before ending up in prison in 2006, Vikram Buddhi was an award-winning student at Purdue University in the United States, pursuing a double PhD in cancer research. His parents in India have been trying to prove his innocence for over three years.
“On February 3, 2006, the Secret Service made a formal report saying Vikram Buddhi is not a threat to the US President or any Secret Service protectees,” says the student’s father Dr. Buddhi Kota Subbarao. “Suddenly, on April 14, they arrest him. There is no new development between these dates. So having said he’s not a threat, how he could become a threat in April 2006?”
Dr. Subbarao is a retired Navy captain and nuclear scientist. His son was eventually found guilty formally, in 2007, of threatening the US President. However, the length of sentence has still not been announced and, without that, the family cannot appeal. Dr. Subbarao believes the entire trial was a miscarriage of justice.
Dr. Subbarao and his son
“The jury was not informed of the law, the defense attorney was told to shut up, and the jury’s questions explaining their confusion – the judge didn’t want to clear the confusion, so the jury got fed up and said guilty,” goes on Dr. Subbarao, “So all these show the trial is unfair, a mistrial must be declared.”
Vikram, 37, is accused of starting a web discussion, calling on Iraqis to take revenge on the US by attacking President George W. Bush. Vikram’s supporters believe he is innocent, because the internet trail does not prove he posted the message.
“He’s been accused of threatening to kill President Bush. How did he threaten – did he buy a weapon, did he write a letter ‘I want to kill you’, did he buy a ticket to Washington DC? What did he do?” demands the student’s lawyer Somnath Bharti.
In fact, Vikram’s family believes that he was targeted because a few months earlier he had publicly spoken out against possible racial discrimination at Indiana’s Purdue University. Vikram defended the case of a black student who was expelled for cheating, by highlighting the fact that three white students, guilty of the same act, were not.
Lawyer Somnath Bharti is sure that “Vikram is an outstanding student who stood against injustice, somebody who speaks up, and such people are not liked.”
Meanwhile, teachers and students of the elite Indian Institute of Technology are demanding the release of Vikram, a former student. They want the Indian government to put pressure on the American administration to look at the legality of the trial.
“The government has done nothing for this boy. Even the basic minimum that should have been done for an Indian citizen who is an alien abroad,” points out student Vijaya M.J. “We’re actually dealing with the US which is supposed to be a friendly country right now. When we have [Barack] Obama and Manmohan [Singh, Indian Prime Minister] shaking hands, and one of our students, completely in an unjust way being arrested and jailed in the US is completely unacceptable.”
They argue web postings are protected by the First Amendment of the US constitution that defends the right to freedom of speech.
“Even though so much is written about the rule of law and freedom of speech, [Americans] in fact live in a great deal of fear. Not only from terrorists, but also from their own security departments. Now, anybody who says anything about the American [president] will face the same fate," Dr. Subbarao says.
What started out as two concerned parents demanding justice for their son is fast becoming an important precedent for the very nature of free speech in contemporary America. For a nation that prides itself on basic human rights and often lectures those who do not comply, it could soon face tough questions over its own laws of liberty.