The death in custody of 84-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a renowned human rights advocate for over four decades, will forever remain "a stain on India's human rights record," a UN human rights expert said Thursday.
Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, was jailed in October last year on "fabricated terrorism charges" and had been subjected to harassment and repeated interrogations, said Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders.
"I was devastated to hear that Father Stan, a Jesuit priest who had dedicated much of his life to defending the rights of indigenous peoples and the Adivasi minority, died in custody on July 5, despite many requests for his release as his health deteriorated in prison," she said.
"In early November 2020, UN experts joined me in raising his case with the Indian authorities, reminding them of their international human rights obligations. I now ask again why he wasn't released and why he had to die in custody?"
Swamy's Parkinson's condition meant he suffered from severe tremors in both hands, and he had great difficulty with daily activities such as eating, drinking and washing.
He also had severe hearing difficulties, requiring hearing aids in both ears.
- Denied drinking straw
In November last year, authorities denied his requests for a drinking straw and warm winter clothes.
He also contracted COVID-19 in prison.
"There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be smeared as a terrorist, and no reason they should ever die the way Father Swamy died, accused and detained and denied his rights," said Lawlor.
Swamy was from Jamshedpur Province in Jharkhand State. He was the founder of Bagaicha, a social research and training center in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state.
He had been working for decades to protect the rights of the Adivasi minority indigenous peoples and the Dalit minority, in particular against violations involving forced displacement and illegal land acquisitions.
"We know that defenders working on environmental, land, or indigenous people's rights are among the most vulnerable to being targeted," said Lawlor.
The UN expert said Swamy's case should remind all states that human rights defenders and those detained without sufficient legal basis should be released.
Lawlor's call was endorsed by Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health.