India's 14-year-long hunger striker walks free from custody

AFP
Indian rights activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for 14 years, pictured surrounded by media following her release from a hospital jail in Imphal, in India's northeastern Manipur state, on August 20, 2014
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Indian rights activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for 14 years, pictured surrounded by media following her release from a hospital jail in Imphal, in India's northeastern Manipur state, on August 20, 2014 (AFP Photo/)

An Indian woman who has staged a 14-year hunger strike against rights abuses in the country's northeast broke down in tears on Wednesday as she was finally released from a hospital jail.

Irom Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur for her unwavering and non-violent protest, said she was "happy" at being freed after spending years in custody, but vowed to continue her fast in protest at alleged abuses by the military.

Sharmila, looking frail and with her voice faltering, said she wanted "mass support" for her protest, as she emerged from a hospital in Imphal, the capital of Manipur state.

"I will continue with my hunger strike no matter what comes," she told the hundreds of journalists and well-wishers massed outside the hospital in Imphal.

"Unless and until my demand is fulfilled I will not touch anything else through my mouth."

Supporters greeted her with flowers and erupted into cheers as she appeared.

"I am overwhelmed with the support given to me by the people," Sharmila said.

"What I want from our people is not singing my glory. What I want from our people is their mass support," the 42-year-old said.

A Manipur court on Tuesday ordered Sharmila's release, ruling that a longstanding criminal charge against her of attempting suicide was unsustainable.

The lower sessions court ruled that the fast by Sharmila, who insists she is not trying to take her own life, is a "political protest through lawful means".

The court said in Tuesday's judgment that the state government "may take appropriate measures for her health and safety" such as continuing with feeding her through her nose if she continues to fast.

Sharmila began her hunger strike in November 2000 after witnessing the army's killing of 10 people at a bus stop near her home in Manipur, which is subject to the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

She was arrested a few days later and was then sent to a hospital that was partly converted into a prison. She was force-fed via a nasal drip several times a day.

"For the last 14 years, I have been suffering so much," she said.

AFSPA, which covers large parts of northeastern India and the restive state of Kashmir, gives Indian forces sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight, and is seen by critics as a cover for human rights abuses.

Sharmila has vowed to continue her hunger strike until the law is scrapped.

The activist quoted from the US constitution, saying that government was "of the people, by the people, for the people", and appealed to India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi to adopt "non-violence" in dealing with her troubled state.

"He needs non-violence to rule the people," she told the crowds.

Her protest has brought her global attention with Amnesty International calling her "a prisoner of conscience".

Authorities "must pay attention to the issues that this remarkable activist is raising," the group said in a statement on Tuesday.

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