* Bahrain opposition leaders start prison hunger strike
* Clashes between police, protesters continue daily
* Anniversary nears of Feb. 14 protests for democratic
(Adds government, opposition comments)
By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA, Jan 31 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
"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)