Bahraini protesters reportedly battled police with water cannons and tear gas on the streets Friday as they demanded the release of an imprisoned activist who has waged a hunger strike for nearly two months.
The plight of Abdulhadi Khawaja has become a rallying point for the protests that have racked the Persian Gulf nation for more than a year, arguing for greater democracy and a larger voice for Shiite Muslims in the Sunni-led kingdom.
Bahraini authorities say reforms are already underway and condemn protesters for attacking police with stones and Molotov cocktails, calling them thugs.
Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the uprising against the government last year. He launched his hunger strike to try to draw attention to continuing human rights abuses in the island nation. A Human Rights Watch official has said Bahrain has made some steps toward reform, yet "hundreds of people remain behind bars solely for speaking out and demanding a change of government."
Several human rights groups inside and outside the country, including Human Rights Watch, have called on Bahrain to release Khawaja and other convicted opposition leaders. Bahrain countered that Human Rights Watch had come to "seemingly rash conclusions" too early in the reform process.
As activists warned that Khawaja's condition was worsening and he could die, his daughter Zainab was arrested Thursday night outside the prison hospital where he was being detained, reportedly crying out for her father. The Bahrain Information Affairs Authority said she was arrested for attacking a public employee.
Bahrain’s most senior Shiite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, warned Friday that the unrest could become uncontrollable if Khawaja dies, the Associated Press reported.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Video: Purported scenes of Bahraini protesters being confronted with tear gas and water cannons. Credit: YouTube