Middle East

Bahrain activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja wins retrial

Leading Bahraini opposition activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is to have his case retried along with 20 other activists, an appeal court has ruled.

The retrial will take place in a civil court. A military court sentenced Khawaja to life in prison last June for plotting against the state.

But supporters are disappointed he will remain in custody pending the retrial.

Khawaja began a hunger strike some three months ago. His case has become a rallying point for other activists.

"The court is [ordering] that the trial take place again and that testimony from prosecution and defence witnesses be heard once more as if it is a new trial," the official news agency BNA was quoted as saying.

Technically, however, the cases are simply being reviewed by the civil court, says the BBC's Frank Gardner who was in the courtroom to hear the appeal outcome.

A crowd of opposition supporters chanted outside after it was announced.

Twenty other activists sentenced alongside Khawaja in 2011 also won retrials - seven in absentia because they remain at large.

Seven are fighting life terms.

'Ridiculous'

This is only a limited victory for Khawaja and his team, our correspondent says, because although the verdict reached by a military tribunal has been thrown out, he will remain in custody while his case is reviewed.

One lawyer for the convicts said he had hoped the initial verdicts would be annulled.

Khawaja has dual nationality with Denmark, and the Danish ambassador renewed his call for him to be transferred to Denmark on humanitarian grounds.

"I think it is ridiculous, what sort of legal process is this?" Khawaja's wife Khadija al-Moussawi told the BBC. "They are playing for time, and should have transferred his case to a civilian court at the first hearing not the third."

She said they were the same judges in military and civilian courts, "but with different clothes".

"Just let them [the activists] go. The government commissioned the Bassiouni report and that declared that they were prisoners of conscience," she said - referring to an independent inquiry into events in 2011 that delivered a searing indictment of the government, including its treatment of Khawaja.

"They must be freed."

Khawaja's case has become an opposition rally point

She said her husband was prepared to lose his life over the issue.

Khawaja remains in hospital in a serious condition, having lost 25% of his bodyweight during an 82-day campaign during which he has usually refused food.

"I saw him on Sunday," Khadija al-Moussawi said.

"He is very weak. He had been restrained and force-fed through a tube for five days, but agreed to be fed by IV [intravenous drip]. He will decide today [Monday], what course to take."

Torture claims

The hospital denies Khawaja has been force-fed, saying he gave written permission to be fed via a nasogastric tube.

At least 60 people are reported to have been killed in Bahrain since protests erupted last year demanding more democracy and an end to discrimination against the majority Shia Muslim community by the Sunni royal family.

Khawaja was arrested in April after King Hamad declared a state of emergency and brought in troops from neighbouring states to crush dissent.

He claims he was tortured, sexually assaulted and regularly beaten in detention.

Manama is usually calm these days, but regular protests continue in villages outside the capital.