UN 'deeply disturbed' after death of priest detained in Indian jail

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Campaign to stop violence against Christians in India on square in front of United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on June 23, 2021 during a session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The United Nations says it is deeply disturbed by the death in pre-trial detention of Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Indian rights activist and Jesuit priest.

Swamy 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 and he died in custody on July 5.

"We are deeply saddened and disturbed by the death of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, a human rights defender and Jesuit priest, in Mumbai yesterday," said Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on July 6.

At the same time a lack of criticism from a crucial area of the Catholic hierarchy has come from a South Asian commentator.

Speaking at a UN briefing for journalists in Geneva, Throssell said Swamy died following his arrest in October 2020 under India's Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

"He was a long-standing activist, particularly on the rights of indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups," said the UN rights office spokesperson.

"While in Mumbai's Taloja Central Jail, his health deteriorated and he reportedly contracted COVID-19."


Swamy's repeated applications for bail were rejected.

"He died as the Bombay High Court was considering an appeal against the rejection of his bail application," said Throssell.

She said that UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and the UN's independent experts had repeatedly raised the cases of Father Swamy and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the Indian government.

These had been raised 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 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in relation to human rights defenders, a law Father Swamy was challenging before Indian courts days before he died.

"One of the concerns really was that they were concerned about the designation of individuals as terrorists in the context of ongoing discrimination directed at religious and other minorities, human rights defenders and political dissidents," said Throssell.

John Dayal wrote in UCA Catholic News, "One of Father Stan's last messages from jail was poignant: 'What is happening to me is not something unique, happening to me alone.

"It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country.

"We are all aware of how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders — they are all put in jail just because they have expressed their dissent ... I am ready to pay the price whatever may it be."


Another writer in UCA Catholic News, Rock Ronaldo Rozario wrote on July 8, "But there are questions here for the official Church.

"What role did the official Church play in supporting Father Stan when he singlehandedly mobilized tribal people and Dalits for their rights against ruthless industrialization in Jharkhand? He surely had backing from the Jesuits but not from the church apparatus that failed to embolden the lone crusader for the good of common men."

Rozario said that when the priest was arrested and jailed, thousands of Catholics including clergy and religious marched on the streets, while Christian and non-Christian groups strongly condemned his inhuman treatment.

"But why was the official Church hierarchy largely silent?

"The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences issued statements to deplore his arrest and demand his release, but we have not seen any statement from India's bishops' conference deploring the arrest and categorically asking for evidence to bracket him as a Maoist conspiring to organize violence.

"The Church was not ready to challenge the state then, and it still is not."

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