An Indian activist who has been on hunger strike for more than 14 years in protest of alleged military brutality was released Thursday after a court rejected charges that her fast was a suicide attempt.
Irom Sharmila, who has demanded the repeal of a law that grants soldiers broad powers in the country’s restive northeast, began her hunger strike in November 2000.
The 42-year-old woman known as “Iron Lady” was arrested shortly thereafter on charges of attempted suicide. At a prison in Imphal, capital of the northeastern state of Manipur, she was force-fed three times a day through tubes in her nose.
The suicide charge allowed authorities to hold her for up to a year, leading to what activists called a “farcical cycle” in which she was released about every 364 days only to be quickly rearrested. But last month, the government said it would decriminalize suicide attempts, which have been rising in much of the country.
Activists close to Sharmila said she would continue her fast until the government repeals the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives soldiers the right to target suspected rebels without fear of prosecution.
The act is in effect in several northeastern states including Manipur, Sharmila’s home area, where an array of militant groups have been waging a low-level insurgency against the central government.
“Irom says either lock me up forever or release me for good,” said Monika Khangembam, an activist in Imphal, who is in regular touch with Sharmila. “She is tired of it.”
Human rights groups urged authorities not to pursue Sharmila again but to focus on alleged abuses by the military under the special powers act.
“It is an outrage that Irom Sharmila has been in prison for over 14 years for a peaceful protest,” said Shemeer Babu, India program director for Amnesty International. “Authorities must not detain Irom Sharmila again, but engage with the issues she is raising.”
Special correspondent Parth M.N. reported from Mumbai and staff writer Bengali from Jaipur, India.
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