Suffering from Parkinson's, he is accused of links with the Maoist guerrillas. A renowned Indian jurist says the country's courts lack humanity. Many citizens and the international community lobby for his release.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) - The arrest and imprisonment of Fr. Stan Swamy violate the cardinal principles of the Indian Constitution writes Fr. Cedrick Prakash, Jesuit and Indian activist. Fr Swamy, an activist for the tribal people, was arrested on 8 October for "Maoist terrorism". For over 50 The Jesuit priest has years been committed to defending the forest rights of the Adivasi in Jharkhand. After 100 days of imprisonment he is weak and sick, but retains his profound spirituality and positivity. Below is the comment by Fr. Prakash.
Tomorrow will be one hundred days since 83-year-old Jesuit father Stan Swamy was taken into custody from his residence in Ranchi (Jharkhand). The agents of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) took him on 8 October; since then he has been locked up in Taloja prison near Mumbai (Maharashtra).
Fr Stan is accused of breaking the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (Uapa) for his alleged involvement in the Bhima-Koregaon incidents, which broke out on January 2018, and for his alleged links with Maoist armed groups. The truth is, he has never been to Bhima-Koregaon. Another 15 human rights activists have been jailed on these trumped up charges; some of them have been languishing in prison for more than two years. The real perpetrators of the violence were freed thanks to their close ties to the regime that now rules the nation.
The UAPA must be abolished immediately and without conditions. In an interview published on November 25 - the eve of "Constitution Day" - on The Wire, former chairman of the Legal Commission A.P. Shah cited a Supreme Court ruling in April 2019. It concerns the Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali case and says "that an accused must remain in custody throughout the trial" if he is prosecutable under the UAPA. The verdict also states that "the courts must assume that any accusation made in the report (Fir) is correct and that the accused has the burden of denying the charges".
This decision is a complete denial of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to personal freedom. For Judge Shah, bail is the rule and prison the exception; apparently, the Supreme Court has made prison the rule and bail the exception. According to Shah, "it appears that we live in an undeclared state of emergency". He then added that today "the courts lack humanity and concern for the fundamental human rights of the accused".
In this regard, Shah cited the example of Varavara Rao and Fr. Swamy. He was amazed that the NIA court took two weeks to decide whether the priest could be granted a straw to drink and eat: these are very strong statements from one of the country's best-known jurists.
To put things in perspective, on November 26 the appeal presented to a special court by the lawyers of Fr. Swamy to get him a straw was postponed to December 4th: he needs it as a patient with Parkinson's disease. The NIA replied that it cannot return such personal belongings because it never confiscated it.
Fr Stan then received the straw; however, on 14 December his bail request was once again rejected by the NIA. On January 12, another hearing began with the presentation of the arguments of both parties. The trial debate should go on for a few more days: Nobody can know if Fr. Stan will be released!
In addition to his age, Fr. Stan is also weak due to some physical problems. However, he does not complain, and retains his profound spirituality and positivity. His communications with the outside world are regulated and monitored; each of them is deeply moving. Just before Christmas he wrote a very touching poem. An extract of it reads:
“Prison life, a great leveller
Inside the daunting prison gates
All belongings taken away but for the bare essentials
‘You’ comes first ‘I’ comes after ‘We’ is the air one breathes
Nothing is mine
Nothing is yours
Everything is ours
No leftover food thrown away
All shared with the birds of the air!”
Meanwhile, thousands of citizens from all walks of life and from all over the world have strongly condemned the illegal arrest of Fr. Stan, asking for his immediate release. In a letter dated 18 December, addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more than 20 European parliamentarians write: “The undersigned, Members of the European Parliament (MEP), would like to express our deep concern about the detention and imprisonment of 16 human rights defenders in connection with the Bhima Koregoan case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in relation to the incident that took place in India in December 2017. We would like to draw particular notice to the Jesuit priest Fr. Stan Swamy, arrested on October 8, 2020 in Ranchi…. The work he has been engaged in, has always been within the framework of the Indian Constitution and of democratic processes Fr. Stan Swamy is 83 years old and a sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease…He is thus in a vulnerable physical state and especially because of his advanced age has been under medical observation and special diet. His captivity has in no doubt impaired his health for the last month and a hall. We are deeply concerned about his health and well-being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we urge you to release him immediately on humanitarian grounds”.
Recently a high-level human rights team of the UN which included the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, have made public a letter they had written to the Government of India expressing their concern over the “alleged arbitrary detention of human rights defender Stan Swamy”. The letter which was sent to the Indian Government on 3 November 2020, was made public, because the Government had not replied to them within the mandated period of sixty days. The letter asked the Government to “provide information as to the factual and legal basis for the arrest of Mr Swamy on 8 October 2020” and also asked for information on the measures undertaken to “ensure that minority human rights defenders, and in particular human rights defenders working for the protection and promotion of the rights of persons belonging to minorities or scheduled castes and tribes in India, are able to carry out their legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment, without the fear of prosecution, intimidation, harassment and violence, in full respect of their civil and political rights, including in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Meanwhile an online petition addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asking for the release of Fr Stan has generated thousands of signatures from all over the world! On 15 January, the hundredth day of Fr. Stan’s imprisonment, several online programmes are being planned; one of them is being organized by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the Jesuits who are campaigning for the release of Fr Stan, together with several other major human rights networks and platforms in the country; the programme will focus on ‘the brutal face of the Indian State!’. Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, will be speaking at the programme.
Prison is no palace! One thing however, is clear: that in the face of growing human rights violations and the systematic destruction of democratic principles, thanks to Fr Stan and the others languishing in jail, there is today a greater awakening among “we the people of India!” The clarion call then is to act together, expeditiously and with a sense of purpose – before all is lost for all and forever!