Bahrain activist Khawaja to continue hunger strike

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja told the BBC's Frank Gardner he was surprised the interview had been allowed

The imprisoned Bahraini human rights and political activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has told the BBC that he will continue his 84-day hunger strike.

The BBC's Frank Gardner was allowed to speak with Mr Khawaja for five minutes with his consent inside his room at the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) hospital.

Mr Khawaja said his medical treatment had been good "except for the force-feeding", something officials deny.

He said he had been walking for three days and appeared thin but alert.

Mr Khawaja is on hunger strike in protest at the life sentence he received from a military court in June for allegedly plotting against the state.

On Monday, Bahrain's highest court ordered a retrial for Mr Khawaja and 20 other prominent activists and opposition figures tried alongside him, seven of them in absentia.

But his wife said the ruling was meaningless, and that the authorities were simply trying to buy time in the face of international pressure.

Face to face

I spoke to Abdulhadi al-Khawaja primarily about his health and condition because his supporters have been very concerned that he is at death's door. He is not. But on the other hand, the impression put out by the Bahraini authorities that his health is fine, I think is misleading.

He is very underweight. He is not on a full fast. He is on an intermittent, managed hunger strike. So he is taking fluids. We were told by hospital staff that he had drunk a cup of coffee this morning. But he is certainly not on a normal diet.

He told us he was going to continue his hunger strike. He knows the news about yesterday's court ruling, and that there is a lot of international pressure on Bahrain to resolve this quickly.

'Nutritional supplements'

Despite the court decision, Mr Khawaja has not been released on bail and has remained under guard at the BDF hospital in Manama.

On Tuesday, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner and producer Mark Georgiou were allowed to see him for five minutes with his consent.

He was dressed in overalls and sitting on the edge of his bed, unrestrained.

Our correspondent says the 51 year old was drinking fluids, and hospital staff said he was also drinking regular nutritional supplements.

However, Mr Khawaja said he would continue his hunger strike, which began on 8 February.

Mr Khawaja said he had been a human rights activist for 30 years by peaceful means.

Hospital staff told our correspondent that Mr Khawaja was getting "VIP treatment" and that they had been frustrated at reports from his supporters that he was being mistreated.

'Freedom or death'

Mr Khawaja's wife, Khadija al-Moussawi, told the BBC on Monday that he had been "very weak" when she visited him in hospital on Sunday.

"He had been restrained and force-fed through a tube for five days, but agreed to be fed by IV [intravenous drip]," she added.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja's wife, Khadija al-Moussawi, says he is "ready to lose" his life

She also said the Court of Cassation's ruling, which threw out his conviction by the military tribunal and ordered a retrial at a civilian court, was "ridiculous".

"They are playing for time, and should have transferred his case to a civilian court at the first hearing not the third," she told the BBC.

His daughter, Maryam, meanwhile argued that if Bahrain had an independent judicial system none of the dissidents would have been jailed in the first place.

Ms Khawaja said her father wanted "freedom or death", not a retrial.

The Danish ambassador also renewed his call for Mr Khawaja, who also has Danish citizenship, to be transferred to Denmark on humanitarian grounds. The Supreme Judicial Council ruled out the move last month.

On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, welcomed the fact that the Bahraini authorities had "recognised the importance of moving away from military justice for civilians" but urged them to transfer Mr Khawaja to a civilian hospital.

"There is no reason for him to be held incommunicado. He should be given immediate access to his family, the Danish ambassador, a doctor and a lawyer of his own choosing," spokesman Rupert Colville said.

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

King Hamad has tried to address some of the protesters' demands by announcing constitutional reforms intended to lead to greater accountability. But the opposition, as well as human rights groups, say the promises are empty and that the crackdown on dissent is continuing.

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