By Robin Gomes
Bombay High Court has adjourned to next month the hearing of the bail plea of 84-year-old Indian Jesuit Father Stan Swamy, meaning the priest continues to remain in prison despite his deteriorating health.
The priest, an undertrial in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case, pleaded with the court for interim bail on health grounds to go back to his home in Ranchi, where he had been working for the indigenous people. The Maharashtra state court on May 21 instead offered him treatment in a government or private hospital in the state capital Mumbai.
Interacting with the court via video conference on May 19, Fr. Swamy explained his health condition in Mumbai’s Taloja Central Jail, where he has been lodged since October 9, 2020, a day after his arrest in Ranchi. The priest who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, hearing impairment and other age-related illnesses, explained that when he arrived at the prison, his bodily systems “were very functional”, but in over 7 months in prison, “there has been a steady, slow regression” of his health.
“So Taloja Jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself," he told the court. "I would eat by myself, do some writing, walk, I could take a bath by myself, but all these are disappearing one after another…. Someone has to feed me,” he said, asking the court to consider how all this happened.
On being offered to be admitted to the State-run JJ Hospital, Fr. Swamy refused saying he would prefer Taloja Prison. “No, I would not want to. I have been there thrice. I know the set-up. I don’t want to be hospitalized there. I would rather suffer, possibly die very shortly if this were to go on. I would prefer this than be admitted at the JJ Hospital. It is a very difficult moment for me."
The court said it could not send him back to Ranchi at the moment but could arrange for him to get better treatment in another hospital, such as the Catholic Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai. He refused to be admitted in any other hospital. saying it would not make any difference. "Whatever happens to me, I would like to be with my own" people in Ranchi, Fr. Swamy said.
On hearing contradictory reports about his health on Wednesday, the Bombay High Court had ordered a medical check-up for the priest at the government's JJ Hospital, the report of which was submitted to the court on Friday. The court asked prison authorities to follow its recommendations to ensure proper care of Fr. Swamy.
The case against Fr. Swamy
Officials of the National Investigation Authority (NIA), a federal agency to combat terrorist activities, arrested Fr. Swamy on October 8, 2020, in Ranchi. They charged him for his alleged links with Maoist insurgents who were said to have been behind the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state in January 2018, in which one person was killed and many others injured. Fifteen other human rights activists implicated in the same case, under the rigid non-bailable provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
Realizing that his arrest was imminent, Father Swamy had released a video explaining his commitment to the rights of the displaced and those deprived of their land, for which he had filed a case against Jharkhand state at the Jharkhand High Court. Regarding the charges of his links with the Bhima Koregaon violence, he said it is “a place that I have never been to in all my life.”
While adjourning the case to June 7, the Bombay High Court said Father Swamy has the liberty to approach it if he agrees to be hospitalized. The Bombay High Court was hearing his appeal against the Special NIA court's decision to reject interim emergency bail.
Soon after his arrest, the United Nations rights chief had appealed to the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet particularly expressed concern over three “vaguely defined laws” that are “increasingly being used to stifle these voices”. Criticizing the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that has been widely criticized for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards, Bachelet’s office noted that Fr. 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.” She 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”.