Father Stan Swamy, a 84-year-old Jesuit priest with advanced Parkinson’s disease who spent his life serving indigenous peoples in India and who was imprisoned last October after being accused of “terrorism”, reportedly is suffering from COVID-19 symptoms in a country that counts some 4,000-daily death due to the virus.
According to the Jesuit order’s Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat headquarters in Rome, the priest has not been tested but, after an international uproar, he was transferred to a local hospital on Tuesday.
Valeria Menendez Vigo, secretary of the Roman office, told Crux that he was taken to the hospital late in the afternoon, where he was given the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’ve had no confirmation of him being tested beforehand,” she said in an email.
In an attempt to curve coronavirus outbreaks in prison, visits have been suspended and inmates are allowed just one three-minute call a week, which has made any official confirmation regarding the priest’s health all the more complicated.
Last Saturday, Swamy used that call to speak with fellow Jesuit Joseph Xavier, who reported the priest had told him: “I feel bad, I have a severe headache, a fever and a cough. I feel very weak.”
Xavier is “very concerned” after his conversation with Swamy, arguing that his friend “never complains about anything. In the six months that he has been in prison, he has never complained, despite the obvious difficulties. ‘It is not easy, but I manage,’ he used to say.”
“However, in this last conversation, he said, ‘I have to tell you that I do not feel well. I feel very weak, very fragile’,” Xavier said in a statement released by the Society of Jesus. “What is happening is a matter of grave concern. I call on the State and prison authorities to recognize that they cannot afford to provide medical treatment for the detainees. We will take over and look after them.”
Swamy was incarcerated Oct. 9, 2020, in Taloja prison in Mumbai. He’s hearing-impaired and being kept in an overcrowded prison, in which several staff are reported to have the virus. According to the statement released Monday, the prison has no medical staff except for one practitioner of traditional Indian medicine.
On May 15, his older brother Irudaya Swamy, told a virtual news conference that the priest was suffering from a severe cold, fever, body pain and diarrhea, to the extent that he was not able to attend a call from his legal team.
“We are not sure if he is getting proper medical attention. His health condition is getting worse,” the 90-year old Swamy said.
Last year, Swami was one of several human rights defenders accused of links with an extremist group called BK-16. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), which deals with anti-terror crimes, arrested him in connection with a 2018 incident of caste-based violence and alleged links with Maoists. The rebels, who are active in several eastern and central states in India, claim to be fighting for communist rule and greater rights for tribal people and the rural poor.
In a video recorded days before his arrest, Swamy revealed that in July, detectives had questioned him for over 15 hours during a span of five days. He was reportedly shown extracts of emails allegedly found on his computer. He disowned them, saying that they were “fabrications” and that the supposed evidence had been planted.
“The Society of Jesus is deeply anxious about the deteriorating health of Father Stan Swamy and all other accused in the BK-16 case,” said Father Xavier Jeyaraj, Secretary for Justice and Ecology.
“We earnestly appeal to all concerned authorities in India to consider the health of Fr. Stan and other prisoners a priority and release them without any delay,” Jeyaraj said. “Even when multi-specialty hospitals have not been able to provide proper health care, how can the prisons do so? Keeping [people] in congested prisons during the pandemic would be a criminal injustice and a murder of collective judicial conscience.”
The religious order is far from being the only voice that’s spoken out in favor of the elderly priest. Back in October, when he was arrested, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chilean Michelle Bachelet, released a statement urging the Indian government “to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society.”
Between June 2018 and October 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government jailed 16 people in connection with the 2018 violent outbreak in Maharashtra state. They include some of India’s most-respected scholars, lawyers, academicians, cultural activists, and a poet.
They have all been repeatedly denied bail under a sweeping anti-terror law, which many observers believe is now being mainly used to crack down on dissent. Swamy’s last bail denial came in March, when the Supreme Court refused to let him go into house arrest.
Swamy and others “hatched a serious conspiracy to create unrest in the entire country and to overpower the Government, politically and by using muscle power,” said Special Judge Dinesh E. Kothalikar of the NIA’s special court on March 22, 2021, when he rejected Swamy’s application to be released on bail.
When it comes to Mumbai’s Taloja prison, families of 16 activists have denounced “appalling” conditions, calling their imprisonment in the midst of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India “a death sentence.”
“There is no plan in place. Even the prison staff is being infected. It seems that in prison, life has no value,” said Dr. Jenny Rowena, the wife of Dr Hany Babu, one of the imprisoned activists, who also has COVID symptoms in addition to a severe eye infection. Babu was hospitalized earlier on Tuesday.
Swamy spent five decades of his lives working in the Indian state of Jharkhand, defending the rights to land and resources of the Adivasis, or indigenous communities, against the advance of mining companies.
Together with other organizations, according to the statement sent to Crux by the Jesuits, Swamy had documented in a study how young indigenous activists were imprisoned and languished in jail for years without trial on charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, that has led to the arrest of more than 5,000 people under the Hindu nationalist Modi government.