Mumbai: Over a month after the 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy tested positive for COVID-19 and was shifted out of the Taloja central prison to a private hospital, his condition has worsened. On July 3, he was put on ventilator support and his condition was critical on Sunday.
Soon after Swamy’s deteriorating health made news, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Maharashtra government’s chief secretary, calling upon him to ensure that every possible effort is made to provide proper medical care and treatment to Swamy as part of lifesaving measures and protection of his basic human rights. The commission has also called for a report in the light of the allegations made in a complaint in May of ill-treatment meted out to Swamy at the Taloja central prison.
Swamy was arrested on October 8 last year for his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case, which has been described as a witchhunt against critics of the government. Swamy was the 16th person to be arrested in the case and also the oldest. At the time of his arrest, he was frail and ailing, and had an advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease. In the months that followed, Swamy had trouble going about with his day-to-day activities at Taloja jail, before he fell terribly sick in May. Only after the Bombay high court intervened, he was finally moved to Holy Family hospital in Bandra and has since been in the hospital.
Swamy’s friends and colleagues confirmed that he has been in and out of an intensive care unit (ICU) several times in the past month. And on July 3, he had to be put on ventilator support, one of his close associates confirmed.
Swamy’s co-accused in the case, Telugu poet and activist Varvara Rao – another octagenarian – was granted bail on medical grounds. His family accused the prison officials of ‘inhuman’ treatment, saying Rao’s health had severely deteriorated while in jail. He had also tested positive for COVID-19.
During the last high court hearing, Swamy, through a video call arranged from the prison, had told the court that he would like to be among his people in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Swamy, who has been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, has been denied bail several times even though many prisoners across prisons in Maharashtra have been infected by COVID-19.
In the past year, several petitions and complaints have been filed against the Taloja jail officials, especially its superintendent Kaustubh Kurlekar. The state government, however, didn’t act on these complaints until last week, when Kurlekar was shunted out of Taloja jail.
Swamy, one of the oldest prisoners in the jail, had been complaining of weakness and fever for a long time before he was moved to the hospital in the last week of May. The jail, overcrowded and ill-equipped to handle medical emergencies, ignored Swamy’s plea for proper healthcare for weeks, leading to serious deterioration of his health condition.
After Swamy fell sick in May, his lawyer, Mihir Desai, moved another application before the high court, this time challenging the constitutionality of UAPA. Desai has challenged the constitutionality of section 43D (5) of UAPA, which imposes strict conditions for grant of bail. The bail application claims that the UAPA section violates Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian constitution. The case is scheduled for hearing again on July 6.
In his plea filed through advocate Desai, Swamy said the above section created an insurmountable hurdle for the accused to get bail and, thus, was violative of the accused person’s fundamental right to life and liberty as guaranteed by the constitution.
In a statement, the Jarkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha said that the NIA, which is investigating the Elgar Parishad case and the Union government are “solely responsible for the sufferings of this elderly person and [his] current state of affairs”.
“Had the investigating agencies and the court taken a humanitarian approach, Stan would not have to go through this suffering. As he fights for his life, the central government continues to look away,” the statement said. He should immediately be granted bail and sent back to Jharkhand, it added.
Note: This is a developing story and information is being added as it becomes available.