UPDATE 1-Bahrainis on hunger strike, official favours release

Tue Jan 31, 2012 3:32pm EST

Related Topics

* Bahrain opposition leaders start prison hunger strike

* Clashes between police, protesters continue daily

* Anniversary nears of Feb. 14 protests for democratic reforms (Adds government, opposition comments)

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Fourteen jailed opposition figures in Bahrain have gone on hunger strike ahead of the Feb. 14 anniversary of a failed pro-democracy uprising, activists said on Tuesday, and a government official said he favoured releasing some of the men.

"They demand an end to the political crackdown. They are protesting against the unfair trial they faced and they want the release of all prisoners of conscience," said Mohammed al-Mascati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Mascati and several dozen other activists gathered at the opposition Waad party building in Manama to stage their own hunger strike in sympathy with the opposition leaders, who were prominent during four weeks of protests inspired by revolts against rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain imposed martial law in March last year and invited in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help crush the month-old uprising.

The government said the island's majority Shi'ite Muslims had coordinated the protests with Iran for sectarian reasons, an accusation the opposition denied.

The 14, who activists said began their hunger strike on Sunday, were among 21 politicians, rights activists and bloggers tried in a military court on charges including "forming a terrorist group to change the constitution and its monarchical system" and organising protests. Eight were sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven are abroad or in hiding.

Activists said the hunger strikers included rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Al-Haq opposition party leader Hassan Mushaimaa and Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim opposition leader.

Sharif's wife Farida Ismail said prison authorities had removed privileges such as access to television to try to force the men to end the hunger strike in Jau prison. She said they were being force fed.

"These trials were political, they were just revenge by the government," she said at Waad headquarters.

An interior ministry statement said the hunger strikers were being properly cared for. "While it is regrettable that this action may cause additional hardship for the detainees or put their health at risk, they do have the right to refuse food," it said, citing general inspector Ibrahim Habib.

"All of the inmates have been provided with regular medical care that is available to them 24 hours a day."

CONFESSIONS UNDER TORTURE

A rights commission on the unrest reported in November that detainees had been tortured. It criticised military trials and advised the authorities to have jail sentences reviewed.

The government, under outside pressure to implement the recommendations, has said a judicial panel will review some sentences. But they have not questioned the military verdict against the 21 protest leaders, who have the right to take the case to the cassation court, the highest appeal court.

A government official expressed hope some of the jailed protest leaders would be freed but said others had planned an Islamist coup.

"I am hopeful that a lot of the cases will be reviewed, but there are some cases to go through and cases have been transferred to the civilian courts," said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior adviser at the Information Affairs Authority and former ambassador to London.

"I'm hopeful for not necessarily all of them, but at least some of them ... There are those in prison who called for a restructuring of the country's institutions, for a full-blown revolution and who called for an Islamic republic using non-peaceful methods," he said.

Al-Haq and two other parties, Wafa and the Freedom Movement, formed a "Coalition for a Republic" during the protests that called for the creation of a democratic republic.

Bahrain remains in turmoil with daily clashes in Shi'ite towns and villages between protesters and riot police that have become more violent in recent weeks. The economy of Bahrain, a banking and tourism hub, has been shaken by the unrest.

The daily al-Ayyam - owned by a media adviser to the king - reported on Tuesday that contacts had begun with unnamed political forces for a new national dialogue "to bring Bahrainis together and strengthen national unity".

Opposition politicians said no one had contacted them and the report was window-dressing ahead of the Feb. 14 anniversary.

Since the uprising, the government has strengthened parliament's power to monitor the cabinet, but has not reacted to opposition demands for a fully empowered elected parliament able to form a government. (Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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