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Asia-pacific

Anti-graft campaigner refuses to leave New Delhi jail

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-08-17

Veteran anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare refused to leave jail late on Tuesday without a guarantee that he could hold his planned "fast unto death" campaign in a city park. His arrest sparked protests in cities across India.

AFP - The Indian government was locked in a high-stakes battle of wills Wednesday with a veteran anti-corruption activist after his arrest ahead of a planned hunger strike sparked nationwide protests.

Police ordered the release of Anna Hazare on Tuesday evening -- hours after he was detained -- but the 74-year-old refused to leave New Delhi's Tihar Jail without a guarantee that he could hold his "fast unto death" in a city park.

Hazare's arrest sparked protests in cities across India and his refusal to leave prison fuelled an already tense atmosphere with hundreds of supporters staging a noisy protest outside the Tihar facility throughout the night.

Corruption has become a focus of public discontent in India, and Hazare has emerged as a prominent national figure for his campaign to demand that a new anti-graft law currently before parliament is strengthened.

Aswathi Muralidharan, a spokesman for Hazare's India Against Corruption movement, said the activist had refused food since his arrest on Tuesday morning.

"And he will not leave Tihar jail unless he is given permission to fast indefinitely," Muralidharan told AFP.

Police had detained Hazare, and around 1,400 of his followers, when it became clear that he would defy police orders restricting his hunger strike in the park to three days.

Muralidharan said the campaign was organising a rally at the India Gate monument in the heart of New Delhi on Wednesday evening.

With his white cap and spectacles lending him a passing resemblance to independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, Hazare has galvanised public opinion at a time when the government is reeling from a succession of high-profile graft scandals.

His arrest was shown live on television and Wednesday's newspapers showed an editorial consensus that the government's action had backfired badly, with Hazare playing the role of wrongly-imprisoned martyr.

"Anna holds government hostage," ran the banner headline on the front page of the Hindustan Times.

In apparent anticipation of his arrest, Hazare had pre-recorded a message of defiance that clearly referenced his hero Gandhi.

"The second freedom struggle has begun," he said. "Time has come, my countrymen, when there should be no place left in jails in India."

The arrest of Hazare and his supporters was widely criticised as an attempt to quell dissent.

Many observers believe the crackdown reflected concern Hazare may become a figurehead for a broader protest movement against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, which is also grappling with an economic slowdown and high inflation.

"The government painted itself into a corner by arresting him before anything happened," said Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, political columnist for DNA newspaper and the author of a book on the new anti-corruption law.

"The government is now in a situation where it is damned if it refuses permission to Anna to fast and it is damned if it grants permission," Rao said.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram described the arrest as a "painful duty" but one that was justified by Hazare's defiance of police orders.

The government acknowledged the right of all Indian citizens to protest, Chidambaram said: "But that right must be exercised under certain reasonable conditions."

The focus of Hazare's protest is a new law, called the "Lokpal" bill, which would create a new ombudsman tasked with investigating and prosecuting senior politicians and bureaucrats.

Following a 98-hour hunger strike in April, Hazare had been allowed to help draft the legislation but later said his input was largely ignored.

Angered that the bill excluded the prime minister and higher judiciary from the scrutiny of the ombudsman, Hazare announced the second hunger strike, which he threatened to continue until the draft was amended.

The 1,400 supporters detained on Tuesday had been held in a sports stadium in north Delhi but were also ordered released in the evening.

Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said up to 250 had followed Hazare's example and refused to leave.
 

Date created : 2011-08-17

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