The All India Catholic Union on Saturday called for immediate release of 83-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights activist Stan Swamy from judicial custody in the Bhima Koregaon case and expressed concern over his poor health amid the coronavirus crisis.

Swamy, arrested on Thursday from his Ranchi house, was sent to judicial custody till October 23. He will be in Taloja Central Jail in Mumbai with the other co-accused.

In a statement, the All India Catholic Union said Swamy’s arrest seems to be an attempt to stifle dissent in India. “The 100 year old AICU, which speaks for the 1.6 crore ordinary Catholics in the country, has expressed its apprehensions that the arrest of the frail, old and ailing activist in the midst of the extraordinary situation created by the corona pandemic, seems part of a project to silence dissent and protest against alienation of the natural and forest resources of the tribals,” it said.

Calling Swamy a “national hero”, the union said that Catholics in India stood in solidarity with him. “Every citizen of India who has respect for the Constitution and the rights of the poor, the Dalits, the disposed and the tribals, makes common cause with these peoples’ movements,” Catholic Union National President Lancy D’Cunha said.

The AICU said that people from outside the Christian community have also condemned Swamy’s arrest and expressed their support. “The AICU expresses its happiness that the solidarity for Fr Stan has extended far beyond the Christian community and the tribals, who have agitated on the roads in Ranchi and other places,” the statement said.

The union also pointed out that civil rights activists and organisations in India and abroad expressed their concern over several months of harassment, raids and questioning of Swamy.

North East Catholic Research Forum statement

The North East Catholic Research Forum also demanded Swamy’s release, saying that it was “shocked and saddened” by his arrest. It said Swamy’s arrest by the National Investigation Agency is “selective targeting”.

“The fact that the arrest came days after the interrogation, arouses suspicion that the decision to arrest him was nothing but selective targeting of a Christian Priest, who, all through his life not only dedicated his selfless services to educating the youth of this country, regardless of religion, but also stand for what is just and fair for the dispossessed and marginalised Indian citizens,” the body said in a statement.

The statement said the 83-year-old is a “rare human rights defenders” speaking up for the poor, Dalits, women and indigenous people of the country.

Several organisations and citizens have called for Swamy’s release. Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren also expressed support for Swamy on Friday, questioning the Centre why it was insistent on crushing voices of dissent.

On Friday, NIA officials claimed that Swamy was actively involved in the activities of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned organisation. They alleged that he was in touch with “conspirators” like Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Hany Babu and Varavara Rao, among others. Swamy was also named in NIA’s chargesheet in the Bhima Koregaon case.

The NIA took over the investigation from the Pune Police on January 2020. All the accused in the case are booked for allegedly delivering inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which triggered violence at Bhima Koregaon war memorial on January 1, 2018.