Bahrainis on jail hunger strike, official moots release

MANAMA Tue Jan 31, 2012 12:59pm EST

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Fourteen jailed opposition figures in Bahrain have gone on hunger strike ahead of the February 14 anniversary of a failed pro-democracy uprising, activists said on Tuesday, and a government official said he favored 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 said he and other rights activists were staging 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, an ally of the United States in its stand-off with Iran over its nuclear program, imposed martial law last March and invited in Saudi and UAE troops to help crush the month-old uprising.

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

The 14, who began their hunger strike on January 29, 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 organizing protests. Eight were sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven are abroad or in hiding.

Those on hunger strike include rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Al-Haq opposition party leader Hassan Mushaimaa and Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim opposition leader.

Mascati said the authorities had begun force-feeding the hunger strikers, who are being held in Jau prison.

The men remain in jail despite the November findings of a rights commission into the unrest that said detainees had been tortured, criticized military trials and advised the authorities to have jail sentences reviewed.

The government, under international pressure to implement the recommendations, has said a judicial panel will review some sentences. But the case of the 21 protest leaders is set to be heard only in the court of cassation, the highest appeal court.

A government official expressed hope some of the jailed protesters 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 King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa - reported on Tuesday that contacts had begun with unnamed political forces for a new national dialogue "to bring Bahrainis together and strengthen national unity."

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 with the ability to form governments.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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