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Meeting Bahrain's hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

By Frank Gardner
BBC Security Correspondent, Bahrain

image captionThe BBC's Frank Gardner had five minutes to meet with Bahraini hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja looked surprised as we filed into his air-conditioned hospital room on Tuesday.

Dressed in olive green overalls and white hospital slippers, his black hair neatly trimmed, his eyes bright and alert, he was sitting up on the edge of his bed after performing his noon prayers.

Bahrain's most renowned jailed dissident was not told until minutes earlier that he was about to receive his first ever visitors from the international media.

We were only told that morning that our request had been granted, on strict conditions. Five minutes only, no TV cameras, no recording equipment, just a few still photographs to record the event.

Policemen and hospital staff milled around in the corridor outside his upstairs room in the well guarded and ultra modern military hospital run by the BDF, the Bahrain Defence Forces. Several officials filed in behind us.

With so little time allowed, we needed to concentrate on the essentials. After more than 80 days reportedly on hunger strike, was he at death's door and was he going to continue his fast?

International attention

Mr Khawaja began a much-publicised hunger strike on 8 February in protest at the life sentence passed down on him and others by a military court last June during Bahrain's three-month "state of national security".

He and his co-defendants were charged with attempting to depose the monarchy by force and liaising with terrorists last year.

image captionAnti-government demonstrators in Bahrain have been holding protests in support of Mr Khawaja

Mr Khawaja, a Shia, has never made any secret of his opposition to the 200-year old rule of Bahrain's Al-Khalifa family, who are Sunnis.

But international human rights groups and many diplomats have questioned the evidence on which he was convicted.

The day before our visit we attended a hearing at Bahrain's highest court, the Court of Cassation, where a panel of judges ruled that his and the cases of 19 other jailed dissidents should now be reviewed by a civil court.

The international community is pressing for these cases to be resolved as soon as possible while Denmark, where Mr Khawaja holds dual nationality, is pressing for him to be transferred there for medical treatment.

A nation divided

In Bahrain, the case of Mr Khawaja is like a microcosm of the divisions that split this tiny but strategically important Gulf kingdom.

To his supporters, who are many in the seething Shia villages where protest marches morph all too often into violent clashes with police, Mr Khawaja is a hero, a human rights defender who has worked tirelessly all his life for democracy and human rights across the region.

But many in the mainstream Shia political opposition do not share his radical views. They want to reform the way Bahrain is ruled but not get rid of the monarchy altogether, a move they know risks leading the country into civil war.

Mr Khawaja comes from the Shirazi sect of Shia Islam and is viewed with a degree of suspicion by mainstream opposition figures, but they can see his enormous popularity on the streets of Shia neighbourhoods and few would criticise him publicly.

Most Sunni Bahrainis, who are estimated to make up somewhere between 35-45% of nationals, do not like Mr Khawaja or what he stands for.

They see him as a threat to their whole way of life, and to Bahrain's prosperity, believing that he and his associates would usher in an Iranian-style Islamic republic. His wife Khadija has categorically denied any links with Iran.

But five minutes in a hospital room with a man on hunger strike was not the time or place to get into the finer points of an opposition political agenda.

'Managed hunger strike'

The first thing my producer and I did was to check that he was happy to meet us - which he said he was - that this was not some forced interview under duress.

Mr Khawaja, who was beaten and tortured in custody so badly last year he needed titanium plates inserted into the side of his head, said his medical treatment in the military hospital had been good, "apart from the force feeding", something the hospital and the government firmly denies.

image captionMr Khawaja is being held at the Bahrain Defence Forces' military hospital

After reading reports on social media that "he could die at any minute", I was expecting to see a skeletal figure chained to the bed with intravenous drips.

But Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, although closely guarded, was not restrained in his room when we saw him, and we did not see any drips.

He told us he was taking fluids and hospital staff, who check on him every two hours, said he regularly consumes cans of nutritional supplements.

It was also clear that this is a managed hunger strike, pulling Mr Khawaja back from danger when his medical indicators reached worrying levels.

He is walking and exercising but is still visibly thin, having lost around 25% of his body weight.

We had the strong impression that this is a man who wants to make a stand but does not want to actually die (suicide is haram, forbidden, in Islam).

He told us he will continue his hunger strike until free, and at the time of the interview there was no date yet announced for his case to be judged by the civil court.