By Vatican News staff reporter
The death in custody of Indian Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a renowned human rights and social justice advocate for over four decades, will forever remain a stain on India’s human rights record, a United Nations human rights expert said on Thursday.
"Fabricated terrorism charges"
The 84-year-old, who died on July 5 while undergoing treatment for deteriorating health and Covid-19 infection in a Mumbai hospital, was jailed last October on fabricated terrorism charges, and had been subjected to harassment and repeated interrogations, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders said in a July 15 press release.
“I was devastated to hear that Father Stan, a Jesuit priest who had dedicated much of his life to defending the rights of indigenous peoples and the Adivasi minority, died in custody on July 5, despite many requests for his release as his health deteriorated in prison,” she lamented.
The ailing priest, who belonged to the Jamshedpur Jesuit Province, was arrested amid the Covid-19 pandemic on October 8 from Bagaicha, a Jesuit social action centre he founded on the outskirts of Ranchi, the capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand. He was charged for alleged links with Maoist insurgents who were said to have been behind the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in the western state of Maharashtra in January 2018. Arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that is tasked with fighting terrorism and sedition under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Father Swamy was lodged in Taloja Central Jail, near Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra.
Father Swamy has denied all charges against him saying he has never been to Bhima Koregaon in all his life. He became India’s oldest prisoner charged with terrorism to die in custody, bail denied.
Why custodial death?
Lawlor, who took up the mandate of the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders on May 1, 2020, recalled that in early November 2020, UN experts had joined her in “raising his case with the Indian authorities, reminding them of their international human rights obligations”. “I now ask again why he wasn’t released, and why he had to die in custody?”
She pointed out that due to his Parkinson’s condition, Father Swamy “suffered from severe tremors in both hands, and had great difficulty with daily activity such as eating, drinking and washing”. Lawlor recalled, “He also had severe hearing difficulties, requiring hearing aids in both ears.” “In November last year, his requests for a drinking straw and warm winter clothes were denied. He contracted Covid-19 in prison,”
“There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be smeared as a terrorist, and no reason they should ever die the way Father Swamy died, accused and detained, and denied his rights,” Lawlor stressed.
Defender of indigenous rights
Her statement said Father Swamy had been working for decades to protect the rights of Adivasi minority indigenous peoples and the Dalit [marginalized] minority, in particular violations involving forced displacement and illegal land acquisitions.
“We know that defenders working on environmental, land or indigenous people’s rights are among the most vulnerable to being targeted,” Lawlor said. The UN rights expert said Father Swamy’s case should remind all states that human rights defenders and all those detained without sufficient legal basis, should be released.
UN rights office worried
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) had earlier expressed worry over the circumstances of the death of Father Swamy. In a statement on July 6, spokesperson Liz Throssell said, “High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the UN's independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the Government of India over the past three years and urged their release from pre-trial detention.” The UN rights chief “has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders, a law Father Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died”. The UN rights office pointed out that “in light of the continued, severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more urgent that States, including India, release every person detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views”.
Last year, after Fr. Stan's arrest, Bachelet’s office expressed concern over the “vaguely defined laws” that are “increasingly being used to stifle these voices”. Bachelet urged the Indian government to “release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.” (Source: UN)