Authorities in India must build on the central government’s decision to decriminalize suicide by dropping all charges of attempted suicide against Prisoner of Conscience Irom Sharmila and releasing her immediately and unconditionally, Amnesty International India said today.
Irom Sharmila has been held in detention in Manipur for over 14 years on repeated charges of attempted suicide. She has been on a hunger strike since November 2000 demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
On 10 December, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs stated in the upper house of Parliament that the central government had decided to repeal Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes attempting to commit suicide punishable with imprisonment for up to one year.
“The Indian government’s decision to decriminalize suicide is in line with an increasing global trend. This move should lead to the immediate release of Irom Sharmila, who has been held in detention merely for exercising her freedom of expression in a peaceful manner,” said Shailesh Rai, Programme Director at Amnesty International India.
Irom Sharmila has never been convicted of attempting to commit suicide. She has been regularly released after completing a year in judicial custody, only to be re-arrested shortly after as she continues her fast.
In August 2014, a Manipur court had ruled that there were no grounds to charge Irom Sharmila with attempted suicide and instead described her protest as a ‘political demand through lawful means’, a belief thousands of her supporters have long held. Irom Sharmila was released after the verdict but she was re-arrested in farcical circumstances just two days later on the same charges.
“Irom Sharmila should not have been arrested in the first place. Now that authorities have acknowledged that attempting to commit suicide should not be considered a crime, authorities in Manipur and Delhi should drop all charges against her, and start to engage with the issues this remarkable activist is raising,” said Shailesh Rai.
Irom Sharmila has been on a prolonged hunger strike for over 14 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). She was arrested by the Manipur police shortly after she began her hunger strike on 2 November 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.
In February 2012, the Supreme Court of India observed in its ruling in the Ram Lila Maidan Incident 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.