India outrage over death of jailed activist

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Social activists and members of Civil Society Organisations protest against the arrest of Stan Swamy by National Investigative Agency (NIA).

Social activist Stan Swamy was an accused in a 2018 incident of caste-based violence

Thousands of activists, political leaders and Indian citizens have taken to social media to pay tributes to jailed tribal rights activist Stan Swamy who died at the age of 84.

Many also expressed anger at the way he was jailed during Covid-19 and repeatedly denied bail.

The government said Swamy’s arrest followed “due process under law”.

The Jesuit priest, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was the oldest to be accused of terrorism in India.

Swamy was moved to a private hospital in May after he contracted Covid in jail. He died of cardiac arrest in the western city of Mumbai on Monday.

Historian Ramachandra Guha called his death “a case of judicial murder“.

Leader of the main opposition Congress party Rahul Gandhi tweeted that “he deserved justice and humaneness”:

United Nations Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor said she was devastated to hear about Swamy’s death and that “jailing HRDs [Human rights defenders] is inexcusable”:

India’s federal government responded to the criticism, saying Swamy’s bail had been denied because of the “specific nature of charges against him”.

“Authorities in India act against violations of law and not against legitimate exercise of rights. All such actions are strictly in accordance with the law,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

Father Stan Swamy was among 16 renowned activists, academics and lawyers who were charged under a draconian anti-terror law in what came to be known as the Bhima Koregaon case.

Arrested in October 2020, he spent eight months in a Mumbai prison, awaiting trial. During this time, his health deteriorated rapidly to the point where he could not eat or bathe by himself.

Prison authorities were criticised for denying him access to basic amenities such as a straw and sipper – a plastic drinking beaker with a spout or straw – which he needed to drink water because of hand tremors caused by Parkinson’s.

In his last bail hearing in May, Swamy had predicted his death. “I would rather suffer, possibly die here very shortly if this were to go on,” he told the judges.

A Catholic priest holds a placard with the image of Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy during a protest against his arrest in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand .

Stan Swamy’s arrest had sparked widespread outrage in India

On Tuesday, the Indian Express newspaper said Swamy’s death had “left the highest institutions of India’s justice system diminished”.

“In the nearly nine months of his incarceration, till his death, the ailing activist came up – again and again – against the heavy hand of the state, an unresponsive judiciary and a broken prison system,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

Chief Minister Hemant Soren of the eastern state of Jharkhand – where Swamy lived and worked – said the federal government “should be answerable for absolute apathy and non provision of timely medical services, leading to his death”.

The accusations against Swamy were in connection with caste violence at a rally in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra in 2018.

India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), which investigates terror crimes, accused Swamy and others of having links with Maoist rebels.

Swamy had denied the charged, saying he was being targeted for his work related to the caste and land struggles of tribespeople in Jharkhand.

Vrinda Grover, a Supreme Court lawyer, said Swamy’s death was “designed to happen“.

Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born Indian development economist who’s known Father Swamy for over a decade, said: “Even if you’re a Maoist, which I don’t believe for a second, even then you could not excuse what has happened today”.

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