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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ‘saddened, disturbed’ by custodial death of Father Stan Swamy

Late Father Stan Swamy

Fr Stan has been reeling in judicial custody since his arrest in October 2020 under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA)

TFM Desk

Following the death of human rights defender and Jesuit priest, father Stan Swamy (84) on Monday at a jail in Mumbai, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights once again, called on the Government of India to ensure that “no one is detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association”.

Fr Stan has been reeling in judicial custody since his arrest in October 2020 under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The commission’s spokesperson Liz Throssell on Tuesday, in a press briefing, said that the commission was “saddened and disturbed” by the death of 84-year-old Fr Stan.

“Father Stan had been held in pre-trial detention without bail since his arrest, charged with terrorism-related offences in relation to demonstrations that date back to 2018,” she said.

“He was a long-standing activist, particularly on the rights of indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups. While in Mumbai’s Taloja Central Jail, his health deteriorated and he reportedly contracted COVID-19. His repeated applications for bail were rejected. He died as the Bombay High Court was considering an appeal against the rejection of his bail application”.

High commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the UN’s independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Fr 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 high commissioner has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders, a law Fr Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died, she maintained.

Liz Throssell, further said 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.

“This would be in line with the Indian judiciary’s calls to decongest the prisons,” she added.

Fr Stan had been hospitalised on May 30 following the directions of the Bombay High Court, was put on ventilator support on Sunday.

His lawyers had moved the Bombay High Court on Monday morning, seeking an urgent hearing on his medical bail plea. Ironically, his death was reportedly announced during the bail hearing.

Father Stan Swamy was a Jesuit priest and a tribal rights activist based in Jharkhand. He had worked in the state for over three decades on various issues of the adivasi communities on land, forest and labour rights. This includes questioning the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which stipulated setting up of a Tribes Advisory Council with members solely of the adivasi community for their protection, well-being and development in the state.

On January 1, 2018, lakhs of Dalits had gathered near Pune to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, which was won by the British army — largely comprising soldiers from the Dalit community — against the Peshwas in 1818. There was violence, with vehicles of those assembled being burnt, and assaults on them.

Following an eyewitness account, an FIR was registered at Pimpri police station on January 2, naming Hindutva leaders Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, for alleged incitement, according to the Indian Express.

On January 8, however, another FIR was filed by Pune police claiming that the violence took place due to an event held on December 31, 2017 called Elgar Parishad at Shaniwar Wada in Pune. The Pune police arrested activists claiming that the event was organised as part of alleged Maoist activity, and that the accused were involved in it.

The NIA had arrested Fr Stan from Ranchi on October 7 last year, and brought him to Mumbai the next day. The NIA did not seek his custody. He was sent to judicial custody till October 23. The NIA also named him in a supplementary charge sheet along with seven others.

Fr Stan was questioned multiple times by the NIA, including at the Jesuit residence in Bagaicha. Searches were also conducted at his residence with the NIA claiming his links to Maoist forces. In the charge-sheet, the agency claimed that he was a CPI (Maoist) cadre and was actively involved in its activities. It was also claimed that he was in communication with other cadres and had received funds from them. The NIA also claimed that he was a convenor of Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC), which it claimed was a frontal organisation of CPI (Maoists). The NIA also claimed that it had recovered incriminating documents, literature and propaganda from him.

Fr Stan had reportedly said that the NIA placed several extracts before him claiming they were taken from his computer implicating his connection to Maoists. “I told them all these were fabrications stealthily put into my computer and I disowned them,” his statement said.

He also denied allegations of Maoist links, and said in the video that he has never been to Bhima Koregaon. “I would just add that what is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals and others who stand for the rights of adivasis, Dalits and the marginalised and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted,” he had said.

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