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India anti-corruption activist remains in prison

Anna Hazare, who has refused to leave his cell until the government eases restrictions related to his planned hunger strike, could leave as soon as Friday.

August 18, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare carry his portrait during a rally outside Tihar prison, where he is expected to remain detained until at least Friday.
Supporters of anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare carry his portrait… (Gurinder Osan, Associated…)

Reporting from New Delhi — A popular anti-corruption activist who was arrested this week and refused to leave his prison cell until India's government met his terms related to a hunger strike is expected to remain in jail until at least Friday.

Although the unusual standoff between septuagenarian activist Anna Hazare and the government appeared near an end Thursday, with officials granting him the right to carry out a hunger strike for up to two weeks, he remained in custody after some last-minute wrangling.

The ruling Congress Party, hoping to avoid political embarrassment, ordered Hazare's arrest Tuesday as he was about to begin his "fast unto death." The move backfired, however, when thousands of people across India, fed up with the country's deep-seated corruption, rallied to his defense.

The government then backed down and granted him bail Tuesday night, only to have him say he would remain in prison until officials dropped 22 conditions related to his hunger strike, including restricting his fast to three days and allowing no more than 5,000 people to attend a public rally highlighting his strike. He also reportedly started his fast from inside prison.

India has seen a spate of scandals involving telecommunications, defense and sports management allegedly involving tens of billions of dollars.

Hazare is trying to pressure parliament to pass his version of a bill that would create an anti-graft ombudsman, or lokpal, with broad powers. The government wants the ombudsman to be merely advisory and not have authority over the prime minister's office or senior judges.

Hazare supporters see him as a man of conviction able to stand up to the government on a crucial issue. Critics accuse him of trying to bypass parliament's authority and use public pressure to blackmail the government.

Supporters Thursday had applauded the apparent deal allowing Hazare to fast for two weeks. "I am very happy that ultimately good sense has prevailed on the government and it has agreed to permit Anna to fast for 14 days," Shanti Bhushan, a former law minister and Hazare advisor, told the media.

Outside Tihar prison, hundreds of supporters danced, chanted, lighted candles and wore mock handcuffs to express their support for the activist. Elsewhere around India, people showed their support with motorcycle rallies, nonstop bell ringing, hunger strikes in solidarity, promises to build a temple in his honor and by not bathing, since he wasn't able to wash in prison.

Others expressed more measured support.

"The movement is for the right cause, but I don't think the methods employed are correct," said Radhika, a university researcher, who declined to give her last name. "It would have been better if they had been more diplomatic and used more civilized language in expressing their motives and intentions. To call Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a thief, does that help the bill's passage?"

Some disagreement continued late Thursday over the venue for the public rally around Hazare's hunger strike. The location, Ramlila Ground, was too muddy, Hazare's aides complained, and needed cleaning before they'd go ahead. Colleagues also said Hazare would not fast until he expired if necessary, as earlier indicated, but would avoid eating only so long as his health was not in jeopardy.

Aarushi Sinha in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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