Middle East

Condition of Bahrain hunger striker seen worsening

Anti-government protesters take cover in front of riot police blocking the road leading to Pearl Square in Manama March 9, 2012. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

DUBAI: The condition of a jailed Bahraini activist who has been on hunger strike for over a month is deteriorating and prison authorities may force-feed him, a lawyer who visited him this week said on Wednesday.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is serving a life sentence for his role in a pro-democracy protest movement that erupted in February last year after uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia only to be put down by force one month later.

He was found guilty of charges including forming and organising a "terrorist group" to end the Al Khalifa monarchy and change the constitution. A founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, he is one of 14 protest leaders serving jail terms after controversial military trials.

Facing international criticism of the crackdown, Western-allied Bahrain has moved most of the military verdicts and cases to civilian courts. The verdicts in the protest leaders case still stand, though an appeal is pending in civilian courts.

The men held a brief hunger strike last month to demand their release, but Khawaja, a vocal rights activist believed to have been tortured in the first weeks of his detention, started his own hunger strike on Feb. 9.

The protest movement included opposition parties who want parliamentary reforms and groups calling for an end to the monarchy. Shi'ites complain of political and economic marginalisation, a charge the government denies.

Khawaja is drinking a litre a day of salted water and glucose but prison authorities may intervene to force-feed him if the hunger strike continues, said Mohammed al-Jishi, a lawyer who visited him this week.

"He can't go on like this, but he refuses absolutely to go back to eating. He says 'I take my freedom or die'," he said, adding Khawaja had stopped drinking water for several days last week. "Since Sunday he started drinking liquids again and got back strength and could talk and move."

Khawaja stopped drinking in protest after a visit by Bahraini rights group official who Khawaja had believed was a journalist, Jishi said. He said the group, viewed by Khawaja as pro-government, gave a false impression of his condition.

"We believe that his hunger strike is not exposing him thus far to imminent danger," the group called Mabadi said in a statement published in the pro-government al-Ayyam daily.

Clashes continue on a daily basis in Shi'ite neighbourhoods between youths and riot police, and there have been a number of small marches this week outside Manama in solidarity with Khawaja, who also has Danish nationality.

Khawaja's family have identified him as case no. 8 in abuse recounted by unnamed detainees in the November report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which Manama formed after international pressure to investigate the unrest.

The detainee underwent surgery on his jaw after he was beaten up on arrest on April 8. The account says that abuse resumed eight days later, including beatings on the soles of his feet and being sodomised with a stick.

The report says the detainee went on hunger strike at that time in an effort to stop the torture.

Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal told his Bahraini counterpart last month that Khawaja must be released or face trial in civilian court. Danish consular staff have visited Khawaja in prison several times during his hunger strike.

 

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