Jesuit priest Stan Swamy’s custody death was a “failure” on the part of India’s government and would “forever remain a stain” on the country’s human rights record, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has said.
The 84-year-old, Jharkhand-based tribal rights defender was arrested on October 8, 2020, by the anti-terror National Investigation Agency in connection with the Bhima Koregaon Maoist conspiracy case and lodged in a Mumbai jail. The Parkinson’s patient died in judicial custody at a Mumbai hospital in July last year while awaiting bail.
Reports have suggested he was ill-treated in jail. For instance, the authorities were allegedly slow to provide him with a sipper bottle and a straw to drink water — his disease prevented him from drinking from a glass — and adequate medical care.
The working group’s comments, made at its session in November last year, came into the public domain this week.
“The working group expresses great sadness that Father Swamy died due to Covid-19 on July 5, 2021, in custody, while arbitrarily detained, in circumstances that were utterly preventable,” the report says.
“United Nations human rights experts have said that Father Swamy’s death in custody will forever remain a stain on the human rights record in India.”
The report says that requests were made to the central government in May 2021 for the use of “non-custodial measures” at all stages of criminal proceedings amid the pandemic.
“The failure of the government to heed these prescient warning led to Father Swamy’s avoidable death in custody,” the report says.
“The working group is deeply disturbed by the source’s allegation that not only were Father Swamy’s repeated request for bail denied, but that his request to access medical treatment once he had contracted Covid-19 was also initially denied. When the request was eventually granted, it was too late.”
The working group has said it is “gravely disappointed” that it took an expression of public outrage for the priest to be treated with humanity, and to be provided with a sipper bottle and a straw and adequate medical care.
The working group has urged the central government to urgently conduct “a thorough, effective and independent investigation into the circumstances that led to the death of Father Swamy while in custody”.
It has asked that the investigation include a detailed report by an independent expert on the medical care and other kinds of care provided to Father Swamy after his arrest.
It has said the investigation must be transparent and involve the priest’s family and their legal and medical representatives. It has added that the government should provide the family with compensation and other reparation in keeping with international law.
The working group has requested the government and rights activists to provide it with information on the action taken on its recommendations.