Indian activist Stan Swamy, jailed under terror law, dies

Swamy was arrested in October in the eastern state of Jharkhand after being accused of having links with Maoist rebels, a charge he denied.

In this file photo from October 2020, Catholic priests and nuns hold placards during a protest in Secunderabad against the arrest of Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy [File: Noah Seelam/AFP]

Father Stan Swamy, a jailed Jesuit priest and longtime Indian tribal rights activist, died on Monday in the western Indian city of Mumbai. He was 84.

His lawyer and doctor told the Mumbai High Court that Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died of cardiac arrest. The court was hearing a plea for bail on medical grounds after Swamy had been denied bail in March.

The activist had been moved to a private hospital from Tajola Central Jail in May after his health began rapidly deteriorating. He was admitted to the intensive care unit, where he tested positive for COVID-19.

“Stan worked to light the world and do away with injustice. The government may have succeeded in snuffing his life out, but his spirit will continue to inspire,” Father Jerome Stanislaus D’souza, the president of Jesuits in India, said in a statement.

Swamy maintained his innocence and said he was targeted over his work and writings on caste injustice and struggles faced by marginalised groups [File: Aijaz Rahi/AFP]

In October, Swamy was arrested in the eastern state of Jharkhand after being charged under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

He was the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India.

The government’s National Investigation Agency arrested him and 15 other activists and academics over a 2018 incident in which violence broke out between so-called “lower-caste” Dalits and right-wing groups.

Authorities alleged that those arrested had links to Maoist rebels, who are active in several states and are considered the country’s biggest internal security threat.

Swamy maintained his innocence and rejected any links to the rebels, saying he was targeted over his work and writings on caste injustice and struggles faced by marginalised groups.

His arrest sparked widespread outrage in India, with many prominent opposition politicians and academics demanding his release.

The anti-terror law was amended in 2019 to allow the government to designate an individual as a terrorist. Police can detain people for up to six months without producing any evidence, and the accused can subsequently be imprisoned for up to seven years.

Critics have called the law draconian, and accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of using it to mute dissent.

In February, the government said that almost 6,000 people were arrested under the UAPA between 2016 and 2019 and that 132 were convicted.

Tributes pour in

Swamy, who focused on empowering and uplifting India’s Indigenous tribes, was known for tirelessly advocating for the rights of those most marginalised.

Tributes poured in on social media on Monday.

“He deserved justice and humaneness,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party.

“Father Stan Swamy spent a lifetime working for the dispossessed and the disadvantaged,” tweeted prominent historian Ramachandra Guha, calling his death “a case of judicial murder.”

Left-wing activist Kavita Krishnan said judges who denied Swamy bail had “blood on their hands”.

Meanwhile, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawler said news of Swamy’s death was devastating.

“Jailing Human Rights Defenders is inexcusable,” she said in a tweet.

In January, to mark 100 days in jail, Swamy penned a letter thanking all those who had stood by him. He said he had not met the 15 other people accused with him, despite being in the same jail.

“But we still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing,” he wrote.

In his last bail hearing in May, he predicted his death if he remained in jail.

“I would rather die here very shortly if things go on as it is,” Swamy told the judges.

On Monday, his lawyer, Mihir Desai, told the court that Swamy is not survived by any family members, the Live Law website reported.

“The Jesuits are his only family,” Desai said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies