India to decriminalise attempted suicide

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India plans to decriminalise attempted suicide, raising hopes Thursday for the release of rights activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for 14 years.

India's junior home minister has said it would act on recommendations from the law commission to amend legislation that until now has considered attempted suicide a crime punishable by up to one year in jail.

The government was taking the decision after seeking responses from India's states and territories on the move, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary said.

"Keeping in view the responses from the states and UTs (union territories), it has been decided to delete section 309 of (the) Indian Penal Code from (the) statute book," Chaudhary said told parliament on Wednesday in a written reply to a question.

Sharmila's supporters are hopeful the move will lead to charges being dropped for her 14-year hunger strike against alleged army atrocities in the remote northeast.

Sharmila, 42, who is force fed several times a day by tubes in her nose, has spent years in custody on charges of attempted suicide.

"We are hopeful that the amendment to the legislation will be retroactive and prosecutors will drop the charges, but we will have to wait and see," lawyer Mani Khaidem, who has been defending Sharmila, told AFP.

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 state, which is subject to the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

The 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.

Staging hunger strikes as a form of non-violent protest has a long history in India dating back to independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, and has led to many arrests.

Local media reported Thursday that some states were opposed to decriminalising attempted suicide, arguing it would lead to a jump in the number of suicides, including those of desperate farmers and militants wearing suicide vests.

In its 2008 report on the issue, the Law Commission of India said only a "handful of countries" still punished people for trying to kill themselves including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

The commission described the law as "undesirable".