Manipur court orders release of Irom Sharmila

Imphal : A Manipur court Tuesday asked the state government to release activist Irom Sharmila Chanu, on indefinite fast for over 13 years, in an order which was cheered by Amnesty International and other rights groups in India’s northeast.

The court order came following a petition filed by the human rights defender Sharmila.

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Dismissing the Manipur government’s charge that Sharmila was attempting to commit suicide by fasting, Manipur East District and Sessions Court Judge A. Guneshwar Sharma, who ordered her release, said there was no material to establish that the woman activist has ever said she was fasting unto death except for the mere allegation contained in the FIR and chargesheet and the uncorroborated news reports.

“Serving solely on nose feeding without taking any food for over 13 years negates the very feeble presumption of intention of fasting unto death since the petitioner is not refusing nose feeding,” Sharma said.

Moreover, the court also directed the Manipur government to take up appropriate measure for Sharmila’s health and safety, such as nose feeding in case she decides to continue with her fast.

Meanwhile, human rights watchdog Amnesty International said the court’s release order of Sharmila is a legal and moral victory following her 13 year-long hunger strike.

“This welcome but long overdue judgment recognises that Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike is a powerful protest for human rights and a peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression,” Shailesh Rai, programme director at Amnesty International India, said in a statement.

The court order has been hailed by rights bodies in India’s northeast. “It’s a moral victory for us. The court has admitted that Sharmila is not attempting to commit suicide, which we have been saying many a times,” said Babloo Loitangbam, an activist based in Imphal.

“She should walk free soon, if the state government does not challenge today’s order in higher court,” said Sharmila’s lawyer Khaidem Mani.

However, no official reaction was available following the court order.

Sharmila, 42, better known as the “Iron Lady”, has been on an indefinite fast since Nov 4, 2000, demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, (AFSPA) after killing of 10 civilians allegedly by the paramilitary Assam Rifles at Malom near Imphal Nov 2, 2000.

She was charged with attempting to commit suicide. Under this charge, she can be kept in custody for a year at a stretch.

In view of her ill health, Sharmila is currently lodged in a special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal where one room, where she is confined, has been declared a sub-jail.

Sharmila is released and re-arrested every year (as the law allows detention only for 364 days) and force-fed thrice a day.

The AFSPA, against which Sharmila has been fighting, provides unlimited powers to the security forces to shoot at sight, arrest anybody without a warrant or carry out searches without hindrances. It also insulates the security forces from legal processes for any action undertaken under the act.