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, who was jailed for nine months without trial under Indian anti-terror law, died in a hospital in Mumbai on Monday ahead of a bail hearing.
The priest, who campaigned for marginalised tribal communities, was arrested last year on suspicion of ties to a banned radical left-wing group that police accused of instigating violence in Maharashtra state in 2018.
“We are deeply saddened and disturbed by the death of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy,” Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
Swamy was denied bail despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments. He was admitted to hospital in May with coronavirus and suffered a cardiac arrest over the weekend.
The priest had been detained under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which allows for prolonged detention for questioning.
Swamy was the oldest of a dozen people, most of them academics and human rights activists, accused of violence in 2018 and imprisoned under the stringent law.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has made use of the law to have campaigners, journalists, students and others arrested, in what critics say is an attempt to silence dissent.
“High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the UN’s independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the government of India over the past three years, and urged their release from pre-trial detention,” said Throssell.
“The high commissioner has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders – a law Father Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died.”
Throssell said that given the severe effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries, India included, should release everyone detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those held simply for expressing dissenting views.
“We stress, once again, the high commissioner’s call on the government of India to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association,” the spokeswoman said.
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The government has previously in court hearings denied accusations of mistreatment of Swamy and said the law must be allowed to take its course.
But Swamy, who denied any links to any outlawed group, had repeatedly asked for bail, recently telling the court in a video conference his health had deteriorated in prison and that he would soon die.
He said he had difficulty eating and drinking because of his Parkinson’s and had asked the court to allow him the use of a straw and a sipper.
The court agreed to the request after nearly three weeks.
A leader of the main opposition Congress party, Jairam Ramesh, criticised the government for the death of “such a passionate crusader for social justice”.
“Who in the apparatus of the Indian state will be held responsible for this tragedy? Make no mistake – it is the Indian state that killed Father Stan Swamy,” Ramesh said.