May 27, 2021 — In October of 2020, 83-year-old Jesuit priest, Fr. Stan Swamy, was arrested by the Indian government on false charges of terrorism. Fr. Swamy has dedicated his life to accompanying the poor and marginalized in India, especially the Indigenous Adivasi community. His arrest and ongoing imprisonment is part of a broad crackdown on human rights defenders in India that has incarcerated 16 activists.
Since October, multiple efforts to secure his release have been denied by the courts. Despite showing symptoms of COVID-19, his bail request was denied last week. Just days later, he was transferred from Taloja jail to a private hospital where he tested positive for COVID-19. He is on oxygen support.
Fr. Swamy is allowed one visitor by the courts — his friend, Fr. Frazer Mascerenhas, SJ. According to Fr. Mascerenhas, Fr. Swamy’s condition is “stable.” But the courts have only approved a 15-day stay at the hospital. After that, Fr. Swamy will be transferred back to prison until his next medical bail request goes before the courts later this month.
Already suffering from Parkinson’s disease at the time of his arrest, Fr. Swamy’s health has steeply declined over the course of his incarceration. “I was brought to Taloja jail eight months ago and, since then, there has been a slow regression of my body. I can’t write now, can’t go for a walk, can’t eat, someone has to hold the spoon for me,” Fr. Swamy told a Bombay Court shortly before he was hospitalized.
In light of these urgent health concerns, U.S. Jesuits are calling on federal officials to demand Fr. Swamy’s release.
“Our country stands for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and against abuses of power, especially those that target people working to protect the rights of those who are marginalized,” wrote Fr. Tim Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, in a letter to President Biden. “The beginning of a new Administration is an important time to send a clear message about these values that our country holds dear. We cannot espouse these principles and values and stand by, doing nothing in this case.”
Fr. Kesicki’s statement came on the heels of a Washington Post investigation that discovered the evidence against one of the 15 activists incarcerated with Fr. Swamy was fabricated. This development casts serious doubt on the validity of the charges against the entire group.
This advocacy is the latest attempt to secure Fr. Swamy’s release. In December, Jesuits protested outside the Indian Embassy, at the foot of Gandhi’s statue. They urged the Indian Ambassador to help free Fr. Swamy “in accordance with India’s strong tradition of democracy and human rights.”
Holding a poster emblazoned with the slogan, “We Stand with Fr. Stan,” Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, read excerpts of Fr. Stan’s letters from prison. Afterward, Fr. Reese explained the importance of this public witness. “When a defender of the poor and marginalized is imprisoned for his ministry, the world must stand up and defend him,” he said. “As a former chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, I am appalled by the use of so-called anti-terrorism laws to demonize religious leaders who work for justice.”
Jesuit leaders in Canada contacted the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, urging him to take action on behalf of Fr. Swamy and his colleagues. Through the Jesuit Conference of South Asia’s #StandwithStan Campaign, people from across the globe — from London to Delhi and Italy to the Philippines — have honored Fr. Swamy’s work and demanded his release.
International leaders have cited Fr. Swamy’s incarceration. Michele Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the government of India to guarantee the rights of human rights defenders in the country, referring specifically to the situation of Fr. Swamy. In December, 21 Members of the European Parliament wrote to Prime Minister Modi asking for his release.
Over the last 50 years, Fr. Swamy has ministered to India’s poorest and marginalized communities. He lives and works at a Jesuit social action center in the west of India, among the Adivasi Indigenous peoples. Fr. Swamy has documented the systemic erosion of Adivasi land rights by the Indian government. He argues that the Indian government has abused its power by falsely imprisoning thousands of Adivasi activists. Many believe this outspoken dissent is the real reason for Fr. Swamy’s arrest.
According to a statement from the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) for the Society of Jesus, Fr. Swamy is committed to peaceful dissent. “He always dared to speak truth to power and expose the large-scale abuse of power using anti-terror and sedition laws and land grabbing without due process of consultation as required,” says SJES secretary Fr. Xavier Jeyaraj, SJ.
“If these are criminal and anti-national actions, I am ready to pay the price,” Fr. Swamy said shortly before his arrest.
In a letter to fellow Jesuits, Fr. Swamy described the prison’s bleak conditions throughout last winter. He shared a 13×8 cell with two other people who helped him eat his meals, wash his clothes and massage his stiff joints as his Parkinson’s disease limits his mobility. He is allotted four minutes every 10 days to speak with people outside the prison. Now, months later, Fr. Swamy struggles to eat, walk or even write.
There is no time to lose. Join the Jesuits in urging federal officials to seek Fr. Swamy’s release.
This article first appeared on jesuits.org