Fears for Bahrain hunger striker, minister defends police

DUBAI, April 25 Wed Apr 25, 2012 9:07am EDT

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DUBAI, April 25 (Reuters) - The wife of a jailed Bahraini activist said on Wednesday she was worried for the health of her husband after more than two months of hunger strike.

Bahrain's interior minister, speaking after weeks of protests against a Formula One Grand Prix here, described as a terrorist act an explosion in a village near Manama on Tuesday night that wounded four policemen. It said security forces had the right to protect themselves.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men in prison for leading an uprising last year, is serving a life sentence for expressing support last year for Bahrain becoming a republic. He has been fasting for 77 days.

Bahrainis won no major concessions on reducing the powers of the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family in the protests, but one year later the uprising has not gone away.

In response to queries on Khawaja's health, the interior ministry said to refer to its Twitter feed. There was no new information on Wednesday.

Khawaja's wife, Khadija al-Mousawi, said her husband had failed to call on Tuesday from the military hospital where he is being monitored during his hunger strike and she was unable to obtain any information on his health on Wednesday.

"Something is very wrong," Mousawi said. "He was talking about accepting death as the path of freedom, he sounded very weak and tired," she added, referring to her last conversation with Khawaja on Monday.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday expressed concern about the activist, respected by international rights groups as a rights defender but seen by some Bahrainis as a Shi'ite Islamist activist, and called on Bahrain to respect human rights.

"The Secretary-General once again urges the Bahraini authorities to resolve Mr. Al-Khawaja's case based on due process and humanitarian considerations without any further delay," Ban Ki-moon's office said.

"The Secretary-General remains concerned about the situation in Bahrain, particularly with regard to the continuing clashes between security forces and protesters which have resulted in more casualties," Ban's office said.

An appeal hearing is under way for the case of Khawaja and 13 others jailed for leading last year's protests, and the next hearing is next week.

Western allies such as Britain and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is moored in Manama, have offered only muted criticism of Bahrain for fear of alienating a trusted friend as well as its Saudi neighbour, which fears unrest could spread amongst Shi'ites in the oil region of its Eastern Province.

ATTACK ON RIOT POLICE

Four policemen were wounded by an explosion in a village west of Manama on Tuesday night that the government said was a "terrorist" act after weeks of protests against a Formula One Grand Prix held in the Gulf Arab state last week.

Police deploy armoured vehicles, teargas, sound bombs and birdshot to lock protesters down and prevent a critical mass from re-forming. The Manama roundabout at the centre of last year's uprising remains closed under tight security lockdown.

Activists say the death toll has risen to 80 from 35, including five security personnel, when martial law was lifted in June.

The government disputes the causes of death and accuses protesters in villages of being hooligans who try to endanger police lives with a sectarian agenda to destabilise the country.

"The security forces have the right to defend themselves within the framework of the law, there are clear degrees to the use of force," Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said in comments carried on the state news agency BNA.

"Those who claim there is excessive use of force or laxity by the security forces are working to distort the noble work of the police."

The Grand Prix gave world media a window on the conflict in Bahrain despite government hopes that the prestigious motor racing event would signal that all was back to normal there.

The banking and tourism hub is a shadow of its former self. Hotels and office space have low occupancy and fewer Saudi weekend visitors frequent its bars, restaurants and malls. Few foreign media have correspondents based in the country.

The International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday the small oil-exporter should find policies that end the social unrest and restore confidence in its economy.

Bahrain's economic growth slowed to 2.2 percent in 2011, down from 4.5 percent in the previous year after some businesses closed and investors withdrew from the country's mutual funds.

"Further measures to diversify the economy, improve the investment climate, and strengthen the labor market are essential for sustained growth and employment," the IMF's executive board annual assessment said.

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