New Delhi, Jul 6 (PTI) Outrage mounted over the death of Father Stan Swamy with top UN and EU rights bodies terming it “disturbing' while leaders of 10 opposition parties wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind on Tuesday urging him to direct the government to take action against those responsible for allegedly meting out 'inhuman treatment' to the activist in jail.
The government, however, maintained that all actions were taken strictly in accordance with the law in the case, stressing that India's democratic and constitutional polity is complemented by independent judiciary and a range of human rights bodies.
A small funeral service, which was joined by many online, was held at the St. Peter's church in suburban Bandra in Maharashtra under the COVID-19 protocol for the 84-year-old Jesuit priest, who was arrested in October under the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in the Elgar Parishad case and died at a Mumbai hospital Monday in the middle of his fight for bail on health grounds.
Opposition leaders and activists had lashed out at the Centre after Swamy's death, calling it 'custodial murder' and alleging that those who repeatedly denied bail to the ailing activist had 'blood on their hands'.
On Tuesday, leaders of 10 parties including Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda wrote to the President Kovind urging him to direct the government to act against those responsible for “foisting false cases” on Swamy, “his continued detention in jail and inhuman treatment.' West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin (DMK) and his Jharkhand counterpart Hemant Soren (JMM) have also signed the letter, besides D Raja (CPI), Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M) and Tejashwi Yadav (RJD).
“We the undersigned leaders of major opposition parties are writing to you in deep anguish expressing our intense grief and outrage at the death of Father Stan Swamy under custody,' the opposition leaders said in their joint letter.
'We are urging your immediate intervention as the President of India to direct your government to act against those responsible for foisting false cases on him, his continued detention in jail and inhuman treatment. They must be held accountable,” the letter said.
They also demanded that all those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case and other detenues “under politically motivated cases, misusing draconian laws like UAPA, sedition, etc, be released forthwith'.
Church bodies too expressed anger over the denial of bail to Swamy.
'We fail to understand why an 84-year-old social worker, greatly weakened by diverse ailments, could not get a bail for a case in which he claimed absolute innocence,' North East India Regional Bishops' Council (NEIRBC) Deputy Secretary Fr GP Amalraj said in a statement.
It has shaken the confidence of society in the justice system and tarnished the image of the country at the international level, Amalraj said.
The top UN human rights agency said it was 'deeply saddened and disturbed' by the death of Swamy and urged nations, including India, to release individuals detained 'without a sufficient legal basis', especially in view of the COVID-19 situation.
It said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the United Nations' independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Swamy and 15 other human rights defenders with the Indian government over the last three years and urged for their release from detention.
'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, following his arrest in October 2020 under India's Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,' Liz Throssell, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.
'In light of the continued, severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more urgent that States, including India, release every person detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views. This would be in line with the Indian judiciary's calls to decongest the prisons,' the statement said.
'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,” it said.
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, she added.
The Ministry of External Affairs, however, said that Swamy was arrested and detained by National Investigation Agency following the due process of law.
Authorities in India act against violations of law and not against legitimate exercise of rights, it asserted.
Reacting to Swamy's death, Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said: 'The news from India today is devastating. Human Rights Defender and Jesuit priest Fr. Stan Swamy has died in custody, nine months after his arrest on false charges of terrorism. Jailing Human Rights Defenders is inexcusable.' European Union Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore echoed similar sentiments in a tweet in which he tagged Lawlor’s tweet.
'India: I am very saddened to hear that Fr #StanSwamy has passed away. A defender of indigenous peoples’ rights. He was held in detention for the past 9 months. The EU had been raising his case repeatedly with authorities,” Gilmore tweeted on Monday.
Church authorities said Swamy's body will be cremated in Mumbai after completing certain formalities and his ashes will be taken to Ranchi and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, the state where he was based.
Swamy was arrested by the NIA from Ranchi, Jharkhand in October 2020 under the stringent UAPA in connection with the Elgar Parishad case and lodged at the Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai.
The Elgar Parishad case relates to alleged inflammatory speeches made by some activists at a conclave held in Pune on December 31, 2017.
Police claim these speeches triggered violence the next day near the Koregaon-Bhima war memorial located on the outskirts of the city and that the conclave was organised by people with alleged Maoist links.
Swamy suffered from Parkinson's disease and several other ailments. During his custody, Swamy had also tested positive for COVID-19. PTI SKC AYA MPB/YAS ZH RT