Hunger strike protestor faces attempted suicide trial

Sitting in a wheelchair and with her feeding tube in place, Irom Sharmila arrives in New Delhi. Picture: Getty
Sitting in a wheelchair and with her feeding tube in place, Irom Sharmila arrives in New Delhi. Picture: Getty
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An INDIAN woman who has been on hunger strike for 12 years in protest at a law that gives the military in her state the right to shoot on sight has been charged with attempted suicide

Irom Sharmila, 40, has not eaten a meal since 2000 and has been force-fed through a tube by the authorities.

She has been charged with attempted suicide, in a case likely to focus attention on her quiet protest in the state of Manipur against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

Under the law, in effect in Indian-ruled Kashmir and parts of the country’s insurgency-plagued north-east, troops have the right to shoot to kill suspected rebels without fear of prosecution and to arrest suspected militants without a warrant. The act also gives police wide-ranging powers of search and seizure.

Dubbed the “Iron Lady” by her supporters, Ms Sharmila has become a rallying point for those demanding the law’s repeal.

She had her last voluntary meal on 4 November, 2000, in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, one of several north-eastern states with active rebel movements fed by resentment against distant New Delhi. She was arrested three days later and has been force-fed through a tube in her nose ever since.

Under the law, she has to be released once a year to see if she will start eating. When she doesn’t, she is taken back into custody.

The current charges stem from a 2006 protest she attended in New Delhi. Police removed her from the scene, took her to hospital and registered a case of attempted suicide against her.

Magistrate Akash Jain charged her yesterday with attempted suicide. Appearing in court with her nose tube in place, she pleaded not guilty.

“I love life. I do not want to take my life, but I want justice and peace,” she told the court after flying in from Manipur.

Her trial was set for 22 May. If convicted, she faces a year in jail.

Ms Sharmila remained unbowed as she left the court. “I will continue my fast until the special powers act is withdrawn,” she said.

Her supporters held a demonstration outside the court, demanding the repeal of the act.

“The Indian army should leave Manipur state and authorities should withdraw all the cases against her,” protester Sucheta Dey said.

Human rights workers have accused Indian troops of using the law to detain, torture and kill rebel suspects, sometimes even staging gun battles as pretexts to kill. The army opposes any weakening of the act, saying it needs extraordinary powers to deal with insurgents.

Indian law minister Ashwini Kumar claimed the act was needed for conflict zones, where the onus and burden of proof were not easy to resolve. “Therefore, the opinion of the defence establishment and intelligence agencies was critical in such matters,” he told the Hindu newspaper.

Activists in Manipur complain the army misuses the extraordinary powers and treats civilians as insurgents. Kennedy Sanabam, of the Manipur Students Association, said the military had failed to contain the insurgency, despite its powers, while “the number of insurgents has gone up”.

A panel appointed by the government recommended in January that protections be removed for soldiers accused of sexual violence. But ministers declined to amend the law.

The act prevents soldiers from being prosecuted for alleged rights violations unless granted express permission from the federal government. According to official documents, the state government in Indian-ruled Kashmir has sought permission to try soldiers in 50 cases in the past two decades. The federal government has refused every one.