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India’s ‘Iron Lady’ vows to continue hunger strike

Indian activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for 14 years, has vowed to continue her non-violent struggle despite her release from a prison hospital - until a controversial anti-terror law is repealed.

INDIA: Indian activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on hunger strike for 14 years, has vowed to continue her non-violent struggle just moments after being freed. Dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ of Manipur state in northeastern India, she said she will keep up her strike until a controversial anti-terror law is repealed.

After more than a decade, Ms Sharmila is finally a free woman following her release from a prison hospital in Manipur after a local court found no evidence to support criminal charges against her for attempting suicide. "I need people's mass support. I don’t know, I know nothing about the government. What I want from them is my demand,” said the 42-year-old campaigner.

For 14 years, Ms Sharmila was detained at a special ward in the hospital. Refusing to eat, she has been force-fed through her nose for more than 10 years. But each year, Ms Sharmila is released and re-arrested, as the law only allows detention for 364 consecutive days.

Ms Sharmila's fast began in November 2000 after she witnessed an alleged killing of 10 people by the army at a bus stop near her home in Manipur. Since then, she has waged a solitary campaign against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a controversial law that gives unlimited powers to security forces in northeastern India and Kashmir. It allows the military to search and enter property, shoot on sight and arrest anybody without a warrant.

While the military says the law is needed to handle insurgents in the restive region, critics argue the law is draconian and have alleged its misuse to cover up human rights violations.

Still, Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International is happy with the court's decision. Shailesh Rai, programme director for Amnesty International India, said: “This judgment should have been delivered a long time ago, and the court has basically recognised that Irom Sharmila's hunger strike is a form of protest and is not an attempt to commit suicide. And the government also needs to pay attention to the issues that she is raising and repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.”

Despite Ms Sharmila's release, her family and supporters are still concerned - they fear she might be rearrested as she is facing another court case in a Delhi court on the charge of attempted suicide. But her release is expected to reignite debate over the controversial anti-terror law.  

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