The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) have called for the immediate release of Indian priest Stan Swamy, whose incarceration the bishops likened to “the treatment meted out to Mahatma Gandhi.”
“We are surprised at the charges brought against him. We stand in solidarity with Father Stan Swamy and all who support the rights of the indigenous people,” read the statement signed by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, FABC president.
Father Swamy, an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples, has been accused of assisting militant Maoist groups which he denies.
An anti-terrorism court in India on Oct. 23 rejected the Jesuit’s bail plea made after he was arrested and detained on Oct. 8.
The 84-year-old priest’s legal counsel had filed a petition for bail on medical and humanitarian grounds. The court rejected the appeal, saying Father Swamy was “taking undue advantage of the pandemic” to get out of jail.
Cardinal Bo said the arrest of Father Swamy “is symptomatic of the treatment meted out to indigenous people in various parts of Asia.”
The cardinal noted that Asian market economy and its enablers “have treated the indigenous communities with a colonial mentality, making them environmental refugees.
“When Asian governments choose to evict the indigenous people and offer their lands for corporate gain, they are opting to infect the lungs of the world,” said Cardinal Bo, citing the call of Pope Francis for the care of the environment.
“Humanists like Father Swamy tried to save the world from the ecocide,” he said.
“We urge the concerned authorities to acknowledge the role the indigenous people play for the welfare of the world and release their people and those who support them,” added the church leader.
“We do hope its leaders will show sagacity and magnanimity in appreciating the services of Father Swamy and other indigenous people’s leaders, releasing them as free citizens of India,” added Cardinal Bo.
The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, condemned the arrest and demanded the immediate release of the priest.
In a statement, the Jesuits said the priest “professed his commitment to the Constitution of India and peaceful means of expressing 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,” it added.
For years, Father Swamy has documented and published the plight of hundreds of Adivasi youth who were implicated and imprisoned for exercising their right to defend their resources.
Father Swamy, who belongs to Jamshedpur Jesuit province, was the 16th person to be arrested in relation to the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence in Maharashtra.
Prior to his arrest, authorities raided the priest’s room on Aug. 28, 2018, and on June 12, 2019. He was also brought for questioning for more than 15 hours over a span of five days in July this year.
Father Swamy has been in Bagaicha, a Jesuit-run social action center, for the past 15 years, primarily working with the indigenous community Adivasis.
On Oct. 20, United Nations rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on the Indian government to uphold and protect the rights of human rights defenders in the country and release Father Swamy.