Long term Indian hunger striker rejects suicide charge

NEW DELHI (AFP) - An Indian human rights activist who has been on hunger-strike for 12 years appeared in a New Delhi court on Monday charged with attempting to commit suicide.

Irom Sharmila, 40, who is force-fed through a drip in her nose, was tearful as she pleaded not guilty to the charge, saying the hunger strike was her way of attracting attention to human rights abuses in her home state of Manipur.

She began her fast in November 2000 after witnessing the killing of 10 people by the army at a bus stop near her home in north-eastern Manipur, which is subject to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

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 cover for grave human rights abuses.

"I am not committing suicide and I want to say that I am not guilty," Sharmila told the magistrate Akash Jain in a packed court room in the capital.

Attempted suicide is a criminal offence in India.

"This is my way of protest. I love life but at the same time I want the government to stop the killings in my state."

Criminal charges were pressed against Sharmila in 2006 by the Delhi government after she staged a hunger-strike protest in the capital city. She faces the same charges in Manipur and has pleaded not guilty.

"Manipur is in turmoil and I want justice. Why does the government ignore basic human rights? I will keep my fighting and there is no way I will give up," she told reporters at the end of the court proceedings.

Authorities have been force-feeding her through a plastic drip in her nose to prevent her death and have confined her to a medical college ward in Manipur.

Manipur is home to 2.5 million people and about 19 separatist groups which have demands ranging from autonomy to independence. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed during the past two decades of violence.