Bahrain activists fear for inmate on 55th day of hunger strike

Protest in Bahrain

Bahraini activists fear for the life of a hunger striker who they say has gone without food for 55 days, a perilous attempt to draw attention to human rights abuses in the Persian Gulf nation.

Abdulhadi Khawaja is one of several opposition leaders sentenced to life in prison for taking part in an uprising that began last year against the Sunni Muslim monarchy, the Associated Press reported. Attorneys appealed the convictions of Khawaja and other opposition figures Monday.

In a February letter to Denmark's foreign minister, Khawaja said he had been severely beaten and tortured for months before being charged with trying to overthrow the state. That month he began a hunger strike, intermittently consuming only glucose and water, activists say.

Khawaja was hospitalized last week after his blood sugar plummeted, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, where his daughter Maryam works. The group says Khawaja is giving up glucose, because Bahraini officials reportedly cited it as proof that he wasn’t really on a hunger strike.

“Al-Khawaja is at high risk of going into a coma at any time now due to his condition. If not released immediately it could be fatal,” his daughter wrote on Twitter.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release Khawaja. The United Nations' human rights office also voiced its concern about Bahraini hunger strikers late last month.

The Times posed several questions via email to the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority regarding Khawaja and his case and will post an update on this blog if it responds.

Bahrain has been racked by protests for more than a year. Dissidents are demanding greater democracy and more voice for Shiite Muslims. The country's leaders say they have already embraced reform; King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa told Der Spiegel that the "Arab Spring" was for other countries, not his.

The ensuing crackdown also led to demands to free jailed protesters and prosecute people accused of killing and wounding demonstrators. Government officials, meanwhile, have condemned protesters for attacking police with stones and Molotov cocktails, acts that have been caught on video.

Bahrain created a commission to investigate abuses during and after the eruption of protests. State media reported that police have been retrained, video equipment is being installed in interrogation cells, and charges have been dropped against hundreds of people, among other moves.

Opposition activists and human rights groups say the government hasn't truly followed through on its own report, continuing to use excessive force and imprisoning dissidents. Bahrain can’t claim all is well as long as hundreds of peaceful protesters are behind bars, Human Rights Watch said recently.

Bahrain called those criticisms an “inappropriate evaluation” with “seemingly rash conclusions,” arguing that it was too early to pass judgment because only 130 days had passed since the commission published its report.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An antigovernment protester holds a picture of jailed opposition activist and hunger striker Abdulhadi Khawaja in Manama, Bahrain. Credit: Hasan Jamali / Associated Press

 
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