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Court orders fasting crusader freed

Imphal, Aug. 19: An Imphal court today ordered rights crusader Irom Sharmila released from jail, 14 years after her arrest and on the 5,036th day of her continuous hunger strike against a “black” law.

This is the first time a court has ordered the release of the 42-year-old, held in judicial custody on attempted suicide charges, who is ritually freed for a day every year and has occasionally received bail.

But two obstacles remain before her release: a possible appeal by the state against today’s ruling and a Delhi case against her. Even if she is freed, her family believes she can be rearrested any moment on a range of pleas.

“The petitioner (Sharmila) be released from custody,” Manipur East sessions judge A. Guneshwar Sharma said while providing the state government some elbowroom by adding “if not required in any other case”.

Sharmila, force-fed in hospital through the nose these 14 years, was not in the courtroom to hear Sharma, who dismissed the suicide attempt charges against her and termed her means of protest “lawful”.

Sharma set aside the June 4 order by the Imphal East chief judicial magistrate, A. Noutuneshwari Devi, who had directed the framing of charges against Sharmila for attempted suicide, an offence punishable with a year’s jail.

That order had come on the basis of a police chargesheet in May, the first ever filed against Sharmila in 14 years. Till then, she used to be freed every 364 days — the limit for continuous detention allowed under the suicide law — only to be rearrested the next day. She was last freed in March this year.

Sharma directed the state government to continue to take appropriate measures for Sharmila’s health and safety, such as nasal feeding, if she continued her fast.

“The agitation of Irom Sharmila is a political demand through a lawful means of repealing a valid statute,” the court order said.

“From her past conduct, it seems that she may continue with the fast till her demand is met politically by the government.”

Sharmila has been on fast since November 5, 2000, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives troops legal immunity for detaining or shooting people on suspicion of militancy. The provocation was Assam Rifles troops shooting 10 people near Imphal in retaliation for a militant attack.

Sharmila’s counsel Khaidem Mani Singh termed today’s judgment a “landmark” in Manipur’s legal history. However, it’s Devi, the Imphal East chief judicial magistrate, who has to pass the final release order.

Asked if the state government would approach the high court against today’s ruling, an official said: “We’ll take a decision after receiving the order.”

Besides, the government can continue to detain Sharmila citing the suicide attempt case against her in a Delhi court, lodged in connection with her hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in 2006 when she was on bail.

Sharmila had last appeared before the Delhi court on May 27 this year and the next hearing is scheduled for October 30 and 31.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was clamped on Manipur in 1980 following an increase in militancy. Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Human Rights Alert, Manipur, alleged that the act had claimed around 20,000 lives in Manipur.

The state government withdrew the act from seven of the state’s 60 Assembly constituencies, coinciding roughly with Imphal’s municipal limits, in August 2004 following an outcry triggered by the alleged rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles troops.

Sharmila is on record saying she would not end her fast till her demand is fully met.