BY MEGANNE LIEBSCH | December 10, 2020
Gathered around a statue honoring Mahatma Gandhi, a group of Jesuits and lay colleagues raised their voices in prayer and protest. Two months ago, 83-year-old Jesuit priest, Fr. Stan Swamy, was arrested by the Indian government on false charges of terrorism. Fr. Swamy has dedicated his life to accompanying the poor and marginalized in India, especially the Indigenous Adivasi community. His arrest is part of a broad crackdown on human rights defenders in India that has incarcerated 16 activists.
Multiple efforts to secure his release have been denied by the courts, despite Fr. Swamy’s age, poor health, and spiking COVID-19 cases. Globally, Jesuit communities are calling for the release of Fr. Swamy and his fellow political prisoners.
We gathered outside the @IndianEmbassyUS today to protest the unjust incarceration of human rights defender #Jesuit Fr. Stan Swamy, SJ. Despite his frail health, he has been jailed for two months in poor conditions. We call on the Indian government to #ReleaseStan immediately! pic.twitter.com/SKVRfaQWUm
— Jesuit Justice (@JesuitJustice) December 8, 2020
In Washington, D.C., Jesuits protested outside the Indian Embassy, at the foot of Gandhi’s statue. Fr. Tim Kesicki, S.J., president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States called on the Indian Ambassador to help free Fr. Swamy “in accordance with India’s strong tradition of democracy and human rights.”
Holding a poster emblazoned with the slogan, “We Stand with Fr. Stan,” Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., read excerpts of Fr. Stan’s letters from prison. Afterward, Fr. Reese explained the importance of this public witness. “When a defender of the poor and marginalized is imprisoned for his ministry, the world must stand up and defend him,” he said. “As a former chair of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, I am appalled by the use of so-called anti-terrorism laws to demonize religious leaders who work for justice.”
Jesuit leaders also contacted the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, urging them to take action on behalf of Fr. Swamy and his colleagues. Through the Jesuit Conference of South Asia’s #StandwithStan Campaign, people from across the globe—from London to Delhi and Italy to the Philippines—have honored Fr. Swamy’s work and demanded his release.
The Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific, Arrupe International Residence, and the East Asian Pastoral Institute stand in solidarity with Fr Stan Swamy SJ and all those who advocate for the rights of those on the margins of society. #standwithstan https://t.co/EQ1p0wr5JX @JCSADelhi pic.twitter.com/0Z5Hrb1iGG
— Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (@jcapsj) November 10, 2020
Over the last 50 years, Fr. Swamy has ministered to India’s poorest and marginalized communities. He lives and works at a Jesuit social action center in the west of India, among the Adivasi Indigenous peoples. Fr. Swamy has documented the systemic erosion of Adivasi land rights by the Indian government. He argues that the Indian government has abused its power by falsely imprisoning thousands of Adivasi activists. Many believe this outspoken dissent is the real reason for Fr. Swamy’s arrest.
Fr Damian Howard SJ, Provincial of the Jesuits in Britain, explains the injustice of Fr Stan Swamy SJ’s incarceration and how we can help on the @The_Tablet‘s latest podcast.
— Jesuits in Britain (@JesuitsBritain) November 14, 2020
According to a statement from the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) for the Society of Jesus, Fr. Swamy is committed to peaceful dissent. “He always dared to speak truth to power and expose the large-scale abuse of power using anti-terror and sedition laws and land grabbing without due process of consultation as required,” says SJES secretary Fr. Xavier Jeyaraj, S.J.
“If these are criminal and anti-national actions, I am ready to pay the price,” Fr. Swamy said shortly before his arrest.
USCIRF Commissioner @nadinemaenza: “I am concerned by the arrest of Stan Swamy, an elderly Jesuit priest & #humanrights defender. He should be released immediately. His arrest is one example of increasing harassment of #India’s religious minorities.” https://t.co/yR2v4vYm05
— USCIRF (@USCIRF) October 22, 2020
In a letter to fellow Jesuits, Fr. Swamy described bleak conditions. He shares a 13×8 cell with two other people who must help him eat his meals, wash his clothes, and massage his stiff joints as his Parkinson’s disease limits his mobility. He is allotted four minutes every 10 days to speak with people outside the prison. Until recently, Fr. Swamy was denied straws or a sipper cup to help him drink water on his own. Concerned about his health, lawyers filed a motion for bail at the end of November, which is still undecided.
Still, Fr. Swamy remains positive. “Despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in Taloja prison,” he wrote.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, found here.]
MegAnne Liebsch is the communications manager for the Office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. She holds a master’s degree in media and international conflict from University College Dublin and is an alumna of La Salle University. She is based in Washington, D.C.