Release all 15 Bhima Koragaon case co-accused pending trial: UNHR chief

Michelle Bachelet expresses concern over death of Stan Swamy

All 15 co-accused in the Bhima Koregaon case should be released pending trial, said the United Nations Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday, as she expressed concern over the death of 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal activist Stan Swamy in custody.

The statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which follows similar concerns from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the European Union (E.U.) Human Rights Chief on Monday, said Ms. Bachelet was ‘disturbed’ and ‘saddened’ by the news of Swamy’s death, and called on the Indian government “to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association”.

“High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the U.N.’s independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the government of India over the past three years and urged their release from pre-trial detention,” said the statement issued by the OHCHR spokesperson.

“The High Commissioner has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders, a law Father Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died,” the rights agency said, making a particular mention of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), that allows authorities to detain suspects without charging them, and allows courts to hold them without bail.

Swamy had been arrested in October 2020 under the UAPA by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and was held along with several others for alleged involvement in violence at a rally in 2018 in Bhima Koregaon as well as for links with Maoist groups, which he denied. Last Saturday, Swamy, who was also fighting for bail and for amenities in court, had challenged the constitutional validity of Section 43D(5) of the UAPA over its ‘illusory’ bail provisions.

“In light of the continued, severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more urgent that States, including India, release every person detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views. This would be in line with the Indian judiciary’s calls to decongest the prisons,” the OHCHR statement said.

Several international human rights agencies have expressed concern over the custodial death of Swamy and his treatment at the Taloja Jail, where he was kept despite suffering from the debilitating Parkinson’s disease, and was shifted to hospital only on May 29 this year. His interim bail hearing was in progress in the Bombay High Court on Monday when news of his death was announced.

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