Fr Stan Swamy hoping for bail at his 2 March hearing
by Nirmala Carvalho

The 83-year-old Jesuit is set to make another appeal. Suffering from Parkinson's, he is in prison on terrorism charges. Two days ago, the Bombay High Court ordered the release of poet and activist Varavara Rao, 80, for health reasons, in prison since August 2018 for the same reasons. For Father Mascarenhas, a “government that cannot tolerate democratic dissent can so easily abuse” security laws.

Mumbai (AsiaNews). The special National Investigation Agency  (NIA) court will examine on 2 March a new appeal for the release on bail of Father Stan Swamy, a 83-year-old Indian Jesuit held in Taloja prison, near Mumbai, since 9 October.

Father Stan is accused of terrorism for his long-term commitment to the rights of tribal communities. The hearing will come just a few days after the Mumbai High Court on 22 February ordered the release on a six-month bail of poet and activist Varavara Rao, who is in the same prison as Father Swamy,.

Like the elderly Jesuit and 14 other people, Rao is also accused of instigating the violence that broke out in 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra, during the Elgar Parishad, the commemoration of a historic battle 200 years ago, seen as a milestone in the struggle to assert the rights of Dalits and tribal communities in India.

In Varavara Rao’s case, after more than two years in custody pending trial, the High Court ruled that he should be released for six months because of poor health. This overturns a ruling by the NIA court, which had rejected a defence request on the same grounds.

The poet, who contracted COVID-19 last July, worsening pre-existing health conditions, is expected to be released this afternoon from the prison’s hospital.

The Bombay High Court found that Rao needs specialised medical assistance that cannot be guaranteed in prison. However, it ruled that he cannot leave Mumbai, that he must remain available for questioning, and that he should not, alone or with others, “take undue advantage of the situation, which would ultimately adversely affect the trial.”

On paper, the same applies to Father Stan Swamy, who was arrested in Ranchi four months ago. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, he struggles to eat and drink, and has lost his hearing and suffers from lumbar spondylosis.

So far, the request for release on health grounds has been rejected. Now the new application filed by his lawyers is based on the argument that the prosecution has not yet demonstrated how Father Stan took part in illegal activities or incited others to carry them out.

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) “is a law for emergency times of widespread violence. It was earlier meant only for organisations,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a Jesuit and a sociologist at St Xavier's College in Mumbai.

“Recently the NDA government amended the Act to include individuals. And it has been very liberally using it against human rights activists, journalists,  lawyers, writers, poets and even students. The denial of bail to Fr Stan is not surprising as the UAPA itself makes this very difficult.

“Hence the need for all civil society [groups] to come together to demand a repeal of this law, [. . .]. A government that cannot tolerate democratic dissent can so easily abuse such a law.”

“The accusation itself becomes the punishment for the persons concerned and their families. An insensitive and overburdened jail administration makes things worse. This is not the depth of degradation our country should have sunk to. But it's not too late to wake up. Our farmers are leading the way.”