By Vatican News staff writer
India’s Christian leaders have appealed to the nation’s president and prime minister for bail for an elderly Jesuit priest after he wrote in a letter to his friends that his deteriorating health has rendered him unable to eat, drink and tend to his needs without help from fellow prisoners.
A delegation led by Bishop Derek Fernandes of Belgaum met the deputy commissioner of Belagavi district in the southern state of Karnataka on Nov. 17 and handed him two separate memoranda addressed to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
More than 200 people under the banner of the United Christian Forum silently demonstrated in Belagavi town before handing over the memoranda to the district official.
Assistive aid denied
"We want Father Stan Swamy to be released on bail immediately on account of his deteriorating health and his advanced age," Bishop Fernandes said, explaining the content of the memoranda.
"We are peeved and concerned about his health as he himself had written to one of his priest colleagues that he needed help from others for eating, drinking, and carrying out other personal needs," Bishop Fernandes told UCA News on Nov. 18.
Officials of the National Investigation Authority (NIA), a federal agency to combat terrorist activities, arrested Father Stan Swamy on Oct. 8 from Bagaicha, a Jesuit social action centre in the outskirts of Jharkhand state capital, Ranchi, which works for the rights of indigenous people.
Father Swamy is the oldest among 16 rights activists, lawyers and intellectuals arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. He is being held in Taloja Central Prison in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra state, and has been denied bail.
On Nov. 6, the priest had filed an application to allow him to use a sipper and straw to consume liquids, as he is unable to hold the glass because of Parkinson’s disease. The court said it would respond to him at his next hearing on Nov. 26.
The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) has sought the “immediate intervention” of the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) to ensure that Father Swamy is provided with requisite age and disability appropriate accommodation; assistive aids, including straws and sippers; and human care assistance as required.
“Humanity overflows in Taloja prison”
In a recent letter to his friends, the priest said he lives with two of his cellmates in a cell measuring some 4m x 2.4m. It has a small bathroom and he considers himself lucky to have a western-style commode.
Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, who are also accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case, are also in Taloja Prison and they meet during recreation. The three and his cellmates help Father Swamy with his meals, bath and washing clothes and massage his knees. He says he is overwhelmed by their humanity, especial the two cellmates who are from very poor families. “I ask you to remember my companions and colleagues in your prayers.
Besides the infirmities of old age, Father Swamy has also had 2 surgeries for hernia and suffers from hearing impairment. He has fallen down several times in jail because of Parkinson’s.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Oct. 20 noted that “the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalized groups, was charged and reportedly remains in detention, despite his poor health.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to “release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”
Below are some excerpts from Fr Stan Swamy's letter written with the help of a fellow prisoner:
Dear friends: Peace!
Although I do not have many details, from what I have heard, I am grateful to all of you for the support and solidarity you express on my behalf. I am in a cell of approximately 4m x 2.4m, together with two of my cellmates. It has a small bathroom and an Indian dressing table. Luckily, I was given a western-style commode. Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira are in another cell. During the day, when the cells and wards are open, we meet.
From 5.30 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning, and from 12 noon to 3 in the afternoon, I am locked in my cell with my two companions. Arun assists me in eating breakfast and lunch. Vernon helps me take a bath. My two cellmates help me during dinner, washing my clothes and giving me knee massages.
They come from very poor families. I ask you to remember my companions and colleagues in your prayers.
Despite everything, humanity overflows into the Taloja prison.
(This article, first published on October 18, was updated on October 19)