Re-arrest of anti-AFSPA campaigner Irom Sharmila for ‘attempted suicide’ shows utter disdain for her constitutional rights

iromAmnesty International India’s statement over the re-arrest of Irom Sharmila, prisoner of conscience, who has been protesting against the imposition of draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in north-eastern states for the last above 13 years:

The re-arrest of Prisoner of Conscience Irom Sharmila for “attempted suicide” two days after a Manipur court rejected the same charge is a farcical exercise and a setback for human rights in India, Amnesty International India said today.  At 10:30 am August 22, Irom Sharmila – who was released on August 20 – was forcibly taken away by police and later arrested for “attempted suicide”. She will be produced in an Imphal court on 23 August. On 19 August, an Imphal court ruled that authorities had failed to establish that Irom Sharmila had intended to commit suicide, and stated that her 13 year-long hunger strike for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was a ‘political demand through a lawful means’.

Kadambari Gladding, Campaigner with Amnesty International India, who is in Imphal to follow the events, said, “For the past two days, Irom Sharmila had been visited by well-wishers and activists to share her joy in being released and express solidarity with her struggle against the AFSPA. Today, when the police arrived to take her away, a group of Manipuri mothers surrounded her to show their solidarity. But Sharmila was dragged away by the police in her frail state.”

Speaking to Amnesty International India after her release, on August 21, Irom Sharmila said, “I feel gratitude for all the support, but my gratitude cannot be complete until AFSPA is repealed.” At a press conference on the same day she said, “No violence of any sort can ever be a solution…I have literally been chewing on my tongue, just so violence can end.”

irom2“Instead of engaging with the important issues Irom Sharmila is raising, the Manipur government has disappointingly returned to its old ways of muffling dissent. The absurd move to re-arrest Irom Sharmila for ‘attempted suicide’ shows utter disdain for her constitutional rights,” said Shailesh Rai, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India.

A Manipur court ruling directing the release of Prisoner of Conscience Irom Sharmila on February 19 because there were no grounds for charging her with attempted suicide was considered a legal and moral victory for the activist and her 13 year-long hunger strike. 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, had said.

“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 AFSPA. She was arrested by the Manipur police shortly after she began her hunger strike on November 2, 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.

irom1Last 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 is 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.

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