Press alert: Parliamentarians pressure UK government over human rights in India

Today, 21 June, 28 parliamentarians from all main parties across both houses have written a joint letter urging the Foreign Secretary to immediately request the government in India safeguard the health of an elderly Jesuit priest [letter can be found here]. The MPs are deeply concerned that by defending and promoting human rights in India, Father Swamy now finds himself held on counter-terrorism charges.

Parliamentarians say they are keen to “understand what consideration” the UK government has given to the matter and point to a statement from the Foreign Secretary earlier this month in which he clarified the UK’s commitment to protecting human rights and freedom of religious belief.

Neale Hanvey MP, who coordinated the joint letter, said that it was “time to act on that commitment” and called on ministers to “speak to our friends in India and make clear that the UK will not stand by while political dissent is criminalised and elderly human rights campaigners are detained on ambiguous charges”.

Neale Hanvey MP said:

"Father Stan has been in captivity for over 250 days. He has been consistently denied bail and his health is deteriorating at a fast pace. It’s quite unbelievable that this could happen in a democratic state.

“That is why I tabled an early day motion calling on the UK government to do everything possible to intervene and it is why I have now organised this joint letter.

“I’m aware colleagues have already tried to raise Father Stan’s case in Westminster and have been told that where UK ministers have concerns, they raise them with their Indian counterparts.

“That’s fine, but the Foreign Secretary must tell us if he has raised such concerns in this case and, if so, when and with whom.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the deteriorating situation for human rights and freedom of expression in India simply because they are our friends. Indeed, it is to our friends we owe the greatest responsibility of telling them when something is clearly wrong.

“The welfare of an elderly priest depends on it.”

The detention of Father Swamy has been met with condemnation from human rights organisations, including Amnesty International who described the arrest as “politically motivated’ [see here], and Human Rights Watch who said the case was part of the Indian government’s “widening assault on free speech” [see here].

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has overseen the use of sweeping anti-terror laws which observers believe are mainly used to crack down on dissent. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on the Indian government to do more, in law and policy, to protect India’s civil society [see here].

Superior of the Jesuits in Scotland, Fr Dermot Preston SJ, said:

“I welcome the attention being drawn to the imprisonment and poor health of my fellow Jesuit, Fr Stan Swamy SJ. Fr Swamy has spent his life fighting for the rights and liberty of some of the poorest, most marginalised people in India, so now it is right that people fight for his rights and liberty.

“Fr Swamy’s continued imprisonment – under a draconian law which has been widely questioned internationally – adds yet another dent to the Indian Government’s claim to be the world’s largest democracy.”

In a statement issued by the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Rome, Fr. Xavier Jeyaraj SJ said:

“As Jesuit companions, we affirm that Stan engaged himself in the defence of adivasis (indigenous people) and other deprived communities whose fundamental rights were denied and systematically trampled upon.

“We stand united with Stan and many other human rights defenders at this crucial juncture. We commit ourselves to continue our effort, both nationally and internationally, to bring truth and justice to light and advocate for the rights of vulnerable people in a peaceful, non-violent way.

“This is the plight not only of Stan Swamy but also of so many other human rights defenders, students, women, farmers, intellectuals, civil society movements and anyone who has dared to oppose or critique the policies of the government in the last few years.

“We appeal to all governments, international bodies and civil society groups and organizations to call on Indian State to repeal UAPA and release Stan and all other human rights defenders immediately.”

Fr Swamy’s legal team submitted regular and medical bail petitions to the courts in India on 17 June. The court adjourned the hearing until 3 July and ruled that Fr Swamy could continue to be treated in Holy Family Hospital until 5 July 2021.

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