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Rights group urges Bahrain to free hunger striker

By Barbara Surk

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 30 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Bahrain anti-government protester throw stones toward police vehicles Friday, March 30, 2012, in Sitra, Bahrain, where widespread demonstrations remembering those who've died in the past year's unrest were broken up by police firing tear gas and clashes erupted. Amnesty International on Friday urged Bahrain to free a leading human rights activist who is on a hunger strike and reminded the Gulf kingdom's rulers to fulfill promises to release all those jailed for speaking out during the country's uprising.

Hasan Jamali, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Amnesty International on Friday urged Bahrain to free a leading human rights activist who is on a hunger strike and reminded the Gulf kingdom's rulers to fulfill promises to release all those jailed for speaking out during the country's uprising.

The rights group said Abdulhadi al-Khawaja should be released immediately because of fears the "activist is at risk of death" after more than 50 days on a hunger strike. Al-Khawaja has been refusing food since Feb. 8.

The activist is serving a life sentence for his role in last year's uprising. He was arrested in April during a government crackdown on protests by the country's Shiite majority that has been demanding greater rights from Sunni rulers. He was convicted of anti-state crimes in a special security court in June.

At least 50 people have been killed during a yearlong uprising in the strategic island nation that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

While tight security measures around the tiny island of about half a million inhabitants have prevented the opposition for the most part from repeating massive street marches in the capital Manama common at the start of the uprising, government opponents still gather in smaller groups around the predominantly Shiite villages around the capital, clashing with security forces almost every night.

More clashes broke out Friday. In the eastern oil hub of Sitra, riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades at thousands of opposition supporters, shouting slogans against the ruling dynasty and demanding the release of political prisoners. The protesters also called for the Formula One Grand Prix race — the kingdom's premier international sporting event, set to be staged in Bahrain in three weeks — be canceled.

Al-Khawaja is one of seven opposition figures who have been sentenced to life imprisonment in a special security court.

Hundreds of other Bahrainis, protesters, activists, athletes and Shiite professionals such as doctors and nurses have been tried in the court, which was set up after Bahrain imposed martial law last March to quell the unrest. Dozens were jailed after being convicted of anti-state crimes, including the medics who treated injured protesters during the unrest.

Amnesty called on Bahrain to release al-Khawaja and fulfill its promise to free all those who were jailed for speaking out during the revolt.

"The Bahraini authorities have made pledges that they would release people who were imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression, but the continued imprisonment of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja demonstrates that they are not serious about fulfilling such promises," said Philip Luther, the group's Middle East and North Africa Director in a statement.

Bahraini authorities did not immediately comment on Amnesty's appeal.

In June, Bahrain lifted emergency rule that was imposed to end the unrest. The special court with military prosecutors was abolished in November and protests-related trials were transferred to civilian courts after international investigators criticized Bahrain for trying civilians behind closed doors in a military-style court.

Lawyers are expected to appeal al-Khawaja's sentence in a civilian court Monday.

Al-Khawaja, 52, is a former Middle East and North Africa director of Frontline Defenders Rights organization. He has also documented human rights abuses in Bahrain for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Al-Khawaja, who is married and has four daughters, is also a citizen of Denmark, where he lived in exile for decades. He returned to Bahrain after the government announced a general amnesty in 2001.

The Danish government has closely followed al-Khawaja's case. Last year Denmark's ambassador to Saudi Arabia attended court hearings in Bahrain. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal earlier this month raised the issue with his Bahraini counterpart, Khaled al-Khalifa, and asked that al-Khawaja either be released or be tried before a civilian court.

Amnesty's statement said Friday that Danish diplomats have visited al-Khawaja in prison several times and confirmed his deteriorating health.

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Associated Press writers Reem Khalifa in Manama, Bahrain, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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