United Nations/Geneva, July 6: The top UN human rights agency said on Tuesday that it was "deeply saddened and disturbed" by the death of 84-year old rights activist Stan Swamy during his pre-trial detention and urged nations, including India, to release individuals detained "without a sufficient legal basis".
It said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the United Nations' independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Swamy, a Jesuit priest, and 15 other human rights defenders with the Indian government over the last three years and urged for their release from detention.
Swamy, who was arrested last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in connection with the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case, died at a Mumbai hospital on Monday.
Rejecting mounting international criticism over the handling of the case of Swamy, India on Tuesday said the concerned authorities act against violations of law and do not restrain legitimate exercise of rights.
The Ministry of External Affairs said India remains committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all its citizens and that the country's democratic polity is complemented by an independent judiciary and a range of national and state-level human rights commissions.
"Swamy was arrested and detained by the National Investigation Agency following due process under law. Because of the specific nature of charges against him, his bail applications were rejected by the courts. 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,” the MEA said in a statement in New Delhi.
It said Swamy was receiving all possible medical attention at a private hospital where he was admitted since May 28. His health and medical treatment was being closely monitored by the courts. He passed away on July 5 following medical complications.
"India remains committed to promotion and protection of human rights of all its citizens,” the ministry said in response to media queries.
Stephane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, said "there needs to be clarity” around how and why Swamy passed away in “those conditions”.
"First of all, we send our condolences to his family and his friends. But I think it is one of these cases where I think there needs to be clarity around how and why he passed away in those conditions,” he said on Tuesday when asked for a response from the UN on the death of the octogenarian activist.
Earlier, Liz Throssell, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, "We are deeply saddened and disturbed by the death of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, a human rights defender and Jesuit priest, in Mumbai yesterday, following his arrest in October 2020 under India's Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act."
"In light of the continued, severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more urgent that States, including India, release every person detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views. This would be in line with the Indian judiciary's calls to decongest the prisons," she said in a statement.
"We stress, once again, the High Commissioner's call on the Government of India to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association,” the statement said.
Throssell said Swamy was a long-standing activist, particularly on the rights of indigenous people and other marginalised groups.
"High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the UN's independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the government of India over the past three years and urged their release from pre-trial detention," she said.
"The High Commissioner has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders, a law Father Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died," she added.
Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, termed Swamy’s death as "devastating" and said he was imprisoned on "false charges of terrorism".
"The news from India today is devastating. Human Rights Defender and Jesuit priest Fr. Stan Swamy has died in custody, nine months after his arrest on false charges of terrorism. Jailing Human Rights Defenders is inexcusable," said Lawlor.
She had earlier expressed concern about the deteriorating health condition of Swamy and sought possible specialist treatment for him. She had described the charges against him as “unfounded.”
European Union Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore echoed similar sentiment in a tweet in which he tagged Lawlor’s tweet.
"India: I am very saddened to hear that Fr #StanSwamy has passed away. A defender of indigenous peoples’ rights. He was held in detention for the past 9 months. The EU had been raising his case repeatedly with authorities,” Gilmore tweeted on Monday.
Swamy was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) from Ranchi, Jharkhand in October 2020 under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in connection with the Elgar Parishad case and lodged at the Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai.
The Elgar Parishad case relates to alleged inflammatory speeches made by some activists at a conclave held in Pune on December 31, 2017. Police claim these speeches triggered violence the next day near the Bhima Koregaon war memorial located on the outskirts of the city and that the conclave was organised by people with alleged Maoist links.
Swamy suffered from Parkinson's disease and several other ailments. During his custody, Swamy had also tested positive for COVID-19.