Father Stan Swamy, 84-year-old Jesuit in Mumbai prison, may have Covid-19
Update May 19: The Maharashtra High Court has ordered that Stan Swamy, S.J., be taken back to JJ Hospital in central Mumbai, where he will undergo a full medical examination by a team of specialists. The state’s representative dismissed reports that Father Swamy’s health was rapidly declining or that he was experiencing symptoms related to Covid-19, arguing instead that Father Swamy was without complaints and “satisfied” with provisions made for his care in the prison. The judges at the bench expressed their dissatisfaction with the latest medical report and ordered that a comprehensive report, this time by doctors at the state hospital, be presented to the court by Friday, May 21, when the court will decide whether the priest’s release on bail for medical reasons is justified.
Stan Swamy, S.J., the 84-year-old Indian priest and human rights activist who has been held in Taloja prison in Mumbai since October, is experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuits announced yesterday in Rome.
“I feel bad, I have a severe headache, fever and cough,” Father Swamy told Joseph Xavier, S.J, a friend and colleague, on a phone call this past weekend. “I feel very weak, very fragile.”
After an urgent petition by the Jesuits to the National Human Rights Commission in India and to the government of the state of Maharashtra, and worldwide outcries from human rights and church organizations pleading for the elderly priest’s release, Father Swamy was taken today to a government hospital in central Mumbai for a medical evaluation and received the Covid-19 vaccine. Contrary to earlier news reports, America has learned that “he was not admitted there,” according to Cedric Prakash, S.J., a human rights activist, author and longtime friend of Father Swamy, who offered a status update after speaking with Father Swamy’s legal team. “After a ‘check-up’ he was sent back to Taloja,” wrote Father Prakash.
Father Swamy was taken today to a government hospital in central Mumbai for a medical evaluation and received the Covid-19 vaccine.
The impending health crisis has forced an end to visitation rights for those behind the walls of the country’s correctional facilities, whether they have been convicted or are still awaiting trial like Father Swamy. At Taloja prison, inmates are now only allowed a three-minute telephone call once a week. “I have to tell you that I do not feel well,” Father Swamy said in his latest call to his friend. According to the statement from the secretariat, “Taloja prison is overcrowded and has no medical staff, except for one Ayurvedic practitioner.”
“It has really come to a breakpoint,” said Father Xavier in a Youtube video describing Father Swamy’s condition and the situation of the 14 others imprisoned alongside the priest—for inciting deadly violence, conspiring to overthrow the Indian government and funding domestic terrorism—under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. “The state, the prison authorities are not able to handle the situation,” he added. “At least allow us to take care of them by releasing them temporarily on bail.”
Father Swamy’s suspected infection comes as India is still reeling from a relentless second wave of the pandemic. About 4,000 people have died on average each day over the past week from complications related to Covid-19 in India. In the past couple months alone, there has been a steep spike in infections, from 615,798 on April 1 to 3.6 million yesterday. Still, these numbers are believed to be a gross underestimation of the deadly spell of disease sweeping through the country that has toppled the health care system and left scores begging for oxygen.
Father Xavier is “very alarmed” about his friend’s safety because he has known him for many years and “he never complains about anything,” he said. “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.”
The concern for Father Swamy’s well-being is justified. On Friday, Hany Babu, another of the 15 charged with Father Swamy, tested positive for Covid-19. “There is no plan in place,” said Jenny Rowena, the wife of Dr. Babu. “Even the prison staff is being infected. It seems that in prison, life has no value.”
The concern for Father Swamy’s well-being is justified.
According to the Jesuits, neither Father Swamy nor any of those accused alongside him had been tested or vaccinated for Covid-19. There is a particular concern for Father Swamy’s safety, “as he was in the same ward with Dr. Hany Babu,” Father Xavier Jeyaraj, S.J., the secretary of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat, told America in an email. “When Stan mentioned to Joe that he was not well, we became quite anxious.”
Lawyers have made multiple applications on Father Swamy’s behalf to India’s courts, arguing for his release on humanitarian grounds. “"He is in the advanced stage of Parkinson's disease. He has lost the ability to hear,” Senior Advocate Mihir Desai told the judges at the Maharashtra High Court bench on May 4. “Given the raging Covid-19 pandemic, our request is to at least grant him temporary bail."
Citing Father Swamy’s arrest in October, Michele Bachelet, the United Nations’ High Commissioner, called on 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." The United Nations intervened again earlier in January, when Mary Lawlor, the agency’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders spoke out in defense of Father Swamy and those accused of the violence at Bhima Koregaon. “India is a state which does not properly protect human rights defenders,“ she said. “I am appalled by the treatment of human rights defenders such as Father Stan Swamy who embodies solidarity.”
Father Swamy suffers from a series of chronic conditions that put him at increased risk of Covid-19. He has already undergone multiple operations for a hernia, has Parkinson’s disease and lumbar spondylosis, and has reportedly lost most of his hearing in both ears since his arrest almost seven months ago.
Father Swamy suffers from a series of chronic conditions that put him at increased risk of Covid-19.
There has been worldwide concern and advocacy for the release of the 15 who are incarcerated in Mumbai, and “there are orders by the Supreme Court to decongest prisons and to grant bail on more flexible grounds,” said Cedric Prakash, S.J. “Unfortunately those arrested under the U.A.P.A.— do not come under this current concession.”
Varavara Rao, a renowned Indian poet, writer and activist who was among the 15 others detained with Father Swamy and is fighting the same charges, contracted Covid-19. Still, under judicial custody, Mr. Rao was initially admitted to the state hospital for care. But after his family visited him in hospital and found his care woefully inadequate, they issued a press release and hosted an emergency press conference, which attracted the support of human rights defenders worldwide, and Mr. Rao was ultimately transferred to a private medical facility. After months in the hospital and several denied bail applications, Mr. Rao was finally granted a temporary bail release on medical grounds on Feb. 22.
“The Society of Jesus is deeply anxious about the deteriorating health of Father Stan Swamy and all other accused in the BK-16 case. We earnestly appeal to all concerned authorities in India to consider the health of Father Stan and other prisoners a priority and release them without any delay. Even when the multi-speciality hospitals have not been able to provide proper health care, how can the prisons do?” asked Father Jeyaraj. “Keeping them in congested prisons during the pandemic would be a criminal injustice and a murder of collective judicial conscience.”
After his latest bail application was rejected, Father Swamy’s legal team elevated his plea for release on humanitarian grounds to the high court of the state of Maharashtra. An initial hearing was held earlier this month, and state authorities in Maharashtra were ordered to deliver a full report on Father Swamy’s health by May 15. The high court hearing for his release on medical grounds is expected to be heard tomorrow, May 19.
This story has been updated since its initial publication.