Update: Father Stan Swamy passed away July 5 at a private hospital in Mumbai while awaiting his bail on medical grounds. His cause of death is not yet public but Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) says Swamy was having trouble breathing while in the ICU.
“As we commemorate the life of Father Stan, let us not forget the 15 other human rights defenders who have been detained for the same reason as Father Stan and continue to languish in prison while waiting for justice to be served,” said the organization in a statement.
The original story continues below:
Jesuits in Canada and around the world continue to call for the release of Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Indian Jesuit and human rights defender charged and imprisoned under India’s anti-terror laws.
A Sessions Court judge in Mumbai denied Father Swamy bail on March 22, according to a press release from Father Jerome Stainslaus D’Souza, president of Jesuits in India. “We continue to hope and pray that justice will prevail, and Father Stan will be released soon and acquitted after a fair trial,” D’Souza said in the release. Swamy’s lawyers are now attempting to appeal his bail ruling in India’s High Court.
Swamy was arrested on Oct. 8, 2020. He is among 15 others men who have since been arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) over an incident of caste violence in 2018. That year, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon in western India was beset by violence from the country’s far right. The Bhima Koregaon ceremony, meant to commemorate the contributions of India’s lower-caste Dalit people, left several Dalits injured and one dead. As a result, India’s conservative government cracked down on left-wing land and human rights defenders with Swamy among them.
Swamy “is a wonderful elderly man, who has a deep concern for the poor,” said Father Erik Oland, Canada’s Jesuit provincial superior. The Indian Jesuit father advocated for the land rights of the Indigenous people of eastern India for five decades. In 2018, he co-filed a public interest litigation on behalf of over 3,000 Adivasi villagers imprisoned without the due process of a timely trial.
The octogenarian denies having attended the Battle of Koregaon incident. He also faced health-care struggles at the beginning of his imprisonment, after being denied the cup and straw necessary for him to drink given his Parkinson’s diagnosis. A May 17 press release from Canada Jesuit International says he’s since become ill with COVID-like symptoms and has yet to be tested or vaccinated.
“In the six months that he has been in prison, he has never complained, despite the obvious difficulties. ‘It is not easy, but I manage,’ he used to say… However, in this last conversation, he said, ‘I have to tell you that I do not feel well. I feel very weak, very fragile.’ What is happening is a matter of grave concern,” said Swamy’s friend, Father Joseph Xavier.
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The Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act – the anti-terror law under Swamy was arrested – resulted in 5,922 detentions in 2016. However, only 132 convictions were made in 2019, according to Swamy in a letter shortly before his denied bail hearing. “Our prisons are bursting at the seams. Consequently, we have a scenario of deprivation of even the basic amenities to prisoners.”
“What’s happened to Father Stan and the 15 other human rights defenders [are] human rights violations,” said Victor Reyes, Canadian Jesuits International communications coordinator. Last year, he and Oland wrote two letters to Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking Ottawa to “strongly condemn” Swamy and the others’ arbitrary arrest.
Canada’s 2020 guidelines for supporting human rights defenders says the country regularly engages with foreign authorities to underscore their mutual obligations of protecting activists.
“Our country has publicly declared its commitment to championing the values of inclusivity and accountable governance … and human rights including the rights of those most marginalized in society,” reads one letter signed by Oland. “These values have either been ignored or violated in the case of Father Stan.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau acknowledged the letters sent to his predecessor, François-Philippe Champagne, in an email to Oland on March 24. Reyes said the email expressed concern for Swamy, but did not mention any specific action being taken by Ottawa.
Jason Kung, media relations spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in an email “Canada continues to monitor developments around the detention of Father Stan Swamy,” and that they “remain concerned by reports of his ill health.”
Canadians are in “a very privileged position” to speak out against human rights abuses around the world because of our freedom of speech, said Reyes. Canada’s condemnation of Swamy’s imprisonment would “add to the growing chorus of international voices asking the Indian government to reconsider what it’s doing.”
“We continue to hope and pray that justice will prevail, and Father Stan will be released soon and acquitted after a fair trial.” — Father Jerome Stainslaus D’Souza
The Jesuit Missions of the U.K., Brussels and Latin America, among others, have also petitioned their governments and that of India to release Swamy through letters and the #StandWithStan Twitter campaign. Last January, the U.K. parliament debated Swamy’s case as it related to India’s growing persecution of minority groups.
International social justice is a central element of Jesuit work, given the society’s dependence on worldwide brotherhood, said Oland. Canadian Jesuits also have strong connections to India; Canadians have completed missions in the northern city of Darjeeling and in the Nepalese Himalayas, while Indian Jesuits often study in Canada.
“When these kinds of things happen, it’s just part of our Jesuit DNA to respond to injustice,” said Oland.
Kiernan Green is a Victoria-based journalist.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated Koregaon was in eastern India. The piece has since been updated.