Afghan lawmaker ends hunger strike on 18th day

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2011 2:19 PM
Afghan lawmaker ends hunger strike on 18th day

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) - A former Afghan lawmaker agreed to eat on Wednesday, ending an 18-day hunger strike that prompted clerics to declare self-starvation un-Islamic, and sparked worries about a government clampdown on political dissent.

Semin Barekzai, a 32-year-old mother of three, stopped eating and moved into a tent outside parliament at the start of October, in a bid to be reinstated as a lawmaker.

She had won her seat last September, but in August the Independent Election Commission (IEC) ruled that she and eight other lawmakers should be replaced because other candidates had actually received more votes.

Hunger strikes are unusual in Afghanistan though a familiar political weapon in nearby India, and Barekzai's campaign exposed divisions on how democracy should function in the war-torn, conservative and ethnically divided country.

Top religious leaders condemned hunger strikes as un-Islamic and poll authorities said she had been fairly beaten and they could not be held responsible for her fate.

But women marched in support, and some 15 people including students and a member of parliament joined the hunger strike.

Her protest was in its 12th day, gathering growing Afghan and international media attention, when Afghan police dismantled the ad hoc camp and took Barekzai to hospital. Supporters said she was forced to go, but the police said she went voluntarily.

Former Afghan president, and current senator Sabghatullah Mujaddidi persuaded Barekzai to eat on Wednesday.

"We are concerned that with your effort you open your way to the hell," Mujaddidi told her during a visit to a Kabul hospital accompanied by a cluster of journalists.

He offered to resign from his seat and recommend her to President Karzai as a senator. Barekzai said she would eat because of respect for Mujaddidi, but had been on hunger strike to protest an injustice, not in a bid to get a job.

(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison)