Indian opposition, U.N. call for release of elderly priest held on terror charges

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian opposition leaders on Wednesday called for the release of an elderly priest held on terror charges, one of 16 similar arrests rights groups say are politically motivated.

Shashi Tharoor, a member of parliament from India's main opposition Congress party, speaks during an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation at his office in New Delhi, January 25, 2016. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee/Files

Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest working with tribal groups in Jharkhand, was arrested earlier this month on accusations he assisted Maoist groups active in the region.

He was refused bail and is being held under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), that critics say is one of several laws being abused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

“The charges seem to be preposterous,” said Shashi Tharoor, a lawmaker from the opposition Congress, that was one of half-a-dozen parties to speak at a news conference on Wednesday.

“He should be released on bail even if the government insists on these far-fetched charges.”

Sonia Narang, a spokeswoman for India’s federal National Investigation Authority that is in charge of the case, did not respond to a request for comment.

Swamy’s arrest is one of sixteen in connection with what began as an investigation into clashes between groups from India’s upper and lower castes in 2018, according to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a rights group. All are activists, academics and other intellectuals.

The United Nations and several rights groups have said the detentions are part of a pattern of the government using India’s laws to crack down on dissent, although New Delhi denies this.

“He was charged and detained, and we understand that he is still detained, despite being 83 years old, despite being a long-standing respected human rights activist, working particularly on the rights of marginalized groups,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, said on Tuesday.

“So in our view this is an example of these laws being used to detain the wrong type of people for the wrong reasons.”

The UAPA has also been used to arrest several left-wing activists in connection with communal riots in India’s capital earlier this year.

Reporting by Alasdair Pal in New Delhi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan