MUMBAI, India – A leading civil rights organization in India has protested the early morning raid on the residence of a Jesuit priest who is a leading human rights activist.
Members of the Pune city police conducted the raid on the residence of Father Stan Swamy on June 12, seizing his computer hard disk, modem, and forcing him to hand over his Gmail and Facebook passwords.
The raid took place in Ranchi, in the eastern state of Jharkhand. The 83-year-old priest has been accused by the government of having ties with Maoists who have been linked with instigating a riot in Pune – located in the western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is also located – in December 2017. The priest’s residence was also raided in August last year.
“The search began after 7 a.m. and lasted nearly two-and-a-half to three hours. The Maharashtra police team took some electronic material and some documents. They will examine this material and decide on the future course of action,” Ashutosh Sekhar, the Superintendent of Police for rural Ranchi, told The Hindu.
A civil rights group accused the police of harassment.
“The stated objective of the Maharashtra police of seizing and collecting evidence against Stan Swamy does not bear scrutiny as the same police force had already collected all available electronic and other evidence during their search last year. The objective is thus very clearly to intimidate, scare and frighten all others – rights activists, democratically-minded groups and concerned citizens – from extending any type of support to Stan Swamy and others,” said a statement issued by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Swamy has been a leading human rights activist and has diligently documented the abuses and illegal activities of the authorities in Jharkhand. The priest has consistently denied having any ties to Maoist groups.
Swamy runs Bagaicha, an NGO that works with Tribal people in Jharkhand, and there is a school for Tribal children and a technical training institute housed in his residential compound.
The PUCL has accused “a corrupt mafia of corrupt police and government officials, greedy politicians and vested corporate interests” of conspiring to take land from lower-caste Indians, members of the country’s Tribal People, especially in Jharkhand. The organization said the “continued harassment, intimidation and terrorization” of Swamy is part of a trend when it comes to police raids on human rights activists.
Several human rights activists have been arrested in recent months, including Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale, senior lawyer Surendra Gadling, prisoners’ rights advocate Rona Wilson, tribal rights activist Mahesh Raut, academic Shoma Sen, rights activist Arun Ferreira, academic Vernon Gonsalves, poet Varavara Rao and rights activist Sudha Bharadwaj. So far, Swamy has not been arrested, although a sedition case was filed against him last year.
“PUCL demands an immediate end to the abuse of law by the Maharashtra police which is launching a witch hunt to ensnare and entrap many more activists in criminal prosecutions,” the statement said.
The raid on Swamy’s residence was also condemned by Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a human rights organization in the eastern state.
“Stan works for the rights of Adivasis [a Tribal People] and other underprivileged groups in the state. Among other issues, he works on displacement, corporate looting of resources, the condition of undertrials and PESA [the act forming Tribal self-government in designated areas, which has not yet been enacted in Jharkhand]. Stan has been a vocal critic of the government’s attempts to amend land laws and the land acquisition act in Jharkhand, and a strong advocate of the Forest Rights Act, PESA and related laws. He is an exceptionally gentle, honest and public-spirited person. Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha has the highest regard for him and his work,” the statement said.
The human rights group has accused the authorities of raising the specter of “urban” Maoists spreading themselves out of their traditional areas of operation in the east of the country.
“The raids and arrests are part of the government’s growing attempts to stifle dissent and intimidate those who are fighting for justice,” the statement continued. “Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha demands an immediate end to the raids, dropping of all false charges against human rights activists across the country and release of those who are arrested. These harassments are politically motivated and wholly unjustified.”
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