India: Release of prisoner of conscience Irom Sharmila 'welcome but long overdue'

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August 19, 2014

India: Release of prisoner of conscience Irom Sharmila 'welcome but long overdue'

A Manipur court ruling directing the release of prisoner of conscience Irom Sharmila because there were no grounds for charging her with attempted suicide is a legal and moral victory for the activist and her 13 year-long hunger strike, Amnesty International India said today.     

The Manipur East Sessions Court ruled that authorities had failed to establish that Irom Sharmila had intended to commit suicide, and stated that her protest was a ‘political demand through a lawful means’. 

“This welcome but long overdue judgement recognizes that Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike is a powerful protest for human rights and a peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression,” said Shailesh Rai, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India. 

“Irom Sharmila should never have been arrested in the first place. All other charges against her of attempted suicide must be dropped and she must be immediately released. Authorities must instead pay attention to the issues this remarkable activist is raising.” 

Irom Sharmila has been on a prolonged hunger strike for over 13 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). She was arrested by the Manipur police shortly after she began her hunger strike on 2 November 2000, and charged with attempting to commit suicide – a criminal offence under Indian law. In March 2013, a Delhi court also charged Sharmila with attempting to commit suicide in October 2006, when she staged a protest in Delhi for two days.

Irom Sharmila is being detained in the security ward of a hospital in Imphal, Manipur, where she is force-fed a diet of liquids through her nose. She has never been convicted for attempting to commit suicide. However, as the offence is punishable with imprisonment for up to one year, she has been regularly released after completing a year in judicial custody, only to be re-arrested shortly after as she continues her fast. 

Last year, over 18,000 people from across India supported an Amnesty International India campaign calling for the unconditional release of Irom Sharmila. India’s National Human Rights Commission also acknowledged that she was a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ who was being detained solely for the peaceful expression of her beliefs and called for the removal of restrictions imposed on access to her. 

Speaking to Amnesty International India in September 2013, Irom Sharmila, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, said, “My struggle is my message. I love my life very much and want to have the freedom to meet people and struggle for issues close to my heart.”

In February 2012, the Supreme Court of India observed in its ruling in the Ram Lila Maidan Incident versus Home Secretary, Union of India and Others case that a hunger strike is “a form of protest which has been accepted, both historically and legally in our constitutional jurisprudence.” 

The British Medical Association, in a briefing to the World Medical Association, has clarified that, “[a] hunger strike is not equivalent to suicide. Individuals who embark on hunger strikes aim to achieve goals important to them but generally hope and intend to survive.” This position is embodied by the World Medical Association in its Malta Declaration on Hunger Strikers. 

The AFSPA, which has been in force in parts of North-eastern India since 1958, and a virtually identical law in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, provides sweeping powers to soldiers, including the power to shoot to kill in certain situations and to arrest people without warrants. The Act also provides virtual immunity from prosecution for security personnel, by mandating prior permission from the central government, which is almost never granted.

The AFSPA falls short of international human rights standards, including provisions of treaties to which India is a state party; and is inconsistent with India’s international legal obligations to respect and protect the right to life, liberty and security of person, to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, and to an effective remedy.