Death of priest highlights persecution of human rights defenders under Modi government

Original article here.

The death of Jesuit priest and human rights defender Father Stan Swamy, today, has deeply shocked and outraged global civil society alliance CIVICUS. Swamy’s death is a result of the persecution he has faced by the Modi government after revealing abuses by the state.

Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old priest and  tribal rights activist, had worked among the tribal groups of Jharkhand state, Eastern India, for decades. He trekked to remote villages to tell tribal communities about their rights and inform them of  transport development projects that would leave many of them displaced.

In October 2020, Swamy was arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), India’s primary counter-terrorism law, for alleged  links to the banned CPI Maoist organisation. He is one of 16 activists and academics arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges for allegedly instigating violence in the village of Bhima Koregaon near Pune in January 2018.

While Swamy was detained in Taloja jail outside Mumbai, human rights groups  raised concerns about inhuman and degrading detention conditions after the Special National Investigation Agency (NIA) Court in Mumbai rejected his request for a straw, sipper bottle and winter clothes. In May 2021, Swamy was shifted from Taloja jail to Holy Family Hospital after he tested positive for COVID-19. He was placed in ICU and on oxygen support, but his condition deteriorated. 

“Swamy’s death is a tragic loss for civil society and highlights the dangerous situation for other human rights defenders currently in jail in India. Human rights activism and criticism of the state should not amount to the equivalent of a death sentence,” said Lysa John, CIVICUS Secretary General.

Dozens of activists are currently in detention in India under the UAPA including the 14 people linked to the Bhima Koregaon case. Some of them have spent more than three years in jail. The slow investigative processes and extremely stringent bail provisions under the UAPA ensure that those detained under the law are held in pre-trial detention for long periods. 

One of the activists, lawyer and human rights defender Sudha Bharadwaj, has been denied bail consistently;  CIVICUS has been calling for the release of Sudha and other imprisoned activists as part of its #StandAsMyWitness campaign. 

“It is disturbing that activists are locked up and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. The case of Father Stan Swamy shows that holding them at this time poses a serious risk to their lives – and adds another layer of punishment for these activists. The government must drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against them and release them immediately,” said Lysa John, CIVICUS Secretary General.

Human rights defenders across India have been targeted by the Modi government for their involvement in protests or criticising the authorities. Besides the UAPA other laws used include section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. 

In December 2019, India’s rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ due to its increased restriction of space for dissent particularly following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in May 2019.

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