NEW DELHI: India's most famous prisoner of conscience has walked free after nearly 14 years in jail but vowed to continue the hunger strike that landed her in prison for attempted suicide, her brother said Thursday.
Irom Sharmila, 42, has not eaten a single morsel of food voluntarily since November 2000, when she began her protest against an Indian law that suspends many human rights protections in areas of conflict. She was arrested three days later on charges of attempting suicide - a crime in India - and prison officials have force fed her through a tube in her nose.
On Wednesday evening, Sharmila, looking frail and holding back tears, walked out of prison after a court order threw out the charges against her.
"She says that she will continue her fast until her demands are met," her brother, Singhjit Irom, said in a telephone interview from Imphal, the capital of the tiny northeastern state of Manipur.
"She is emotional," her brother said, describing her reaction to the court order, "but her willpower is still strong. She says she will continue to fight."
The court order is a huge moral victory for the activist, said Babloo Loitongbam, the head of Human Rights Alert, a local rights group that has been involved with Sharmila's campaign.
In its order, the court said that Sharmila was not fasting to kill herself but to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. During her years in incarceration, Sharmila was kept in a government hospital in Imphal and by law was released once a year to see if she would start eating. When she did not, she was taken back into custody and force fed.
"The state still has a responsibility to ensure that her condition does not worsen and the court has said that if she continues to fast she can be fed through a nasal tube but she cannot be charged as a criminal for her hunger strike," said Loitongbam.
Sharmila "has never resisted being fed by the nasal tube and has never said she wants to die," Pradip Phanjoubam, a local journalist said.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in effect in Indian-ruled Kashmir and in northeastern areas wracked by separatist insurgencies. The law says troops have the right to shoot to kill suspected rebels without fear of possible prosecution and to arrest suspected militants without a warrant. It also gives police wide-ranging powers of search and seizure.
The law prohibits soldiers from being prosecuted for alleged rights violations unless granted express permission from the federal government. Such prosecutions are rare. According to official documents, the state government in Kashmir has sought permission to try soldiers in 50 cases in the last two decades. The federal government has refused every one.
Sharmila has also vowed to not visit her home and village until the law is repealed so for now she is staying in a hut erected outside the hospital where she was watched by police guards.
In India, hunger strikes are part of a respected protest tradition made famous by independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, who coined the term "Satyagraha," or nonviolent resistance, and fasted repeatedly against British rule.
Since then the "fast unto death" - which almost never ends in the protester's death - has become an established route to getting any point of view heard in the chaotic din of Indian politics.