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Wed 1 Feb 2012 08:46 AM

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Bahrainis on hunger strike ahead of uprising anniversary

Government official says favours release of some of 14 jailed opposition figures

Bahrainis on hunger strike ahead of uprising anniversary
Flashback to Bahrain political uprising in February [Getty Images]

Fourteen jailed opposition figures in Bahrain have gone on
hunger strike
ahead of the Feb. 14 anniversary of a failed pro-democracy
uprising, activists said on Tuesday, and a government official said he favoured
releasing some of the men.

"They demand an end to the political crackdown. They
are protesting against the unfair trial they faced and they want the release of
all prisoners of conscience," said Mohammed al-Mascati, head of the
Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Mascati and several dozen other activists gathered at the
opposition Waad party building in Manama to stage their own hunger strike in
sympathy with the opposition leaders, who were prominent during four weeks of
inspired by revolts against rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain imposed martial law in March last year and invited
in troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help crush the month-old uprising.

The government said the island's majority Shi'ite Muslims
had coordinated the protests with Iran for sectarian reasons, an accusation the
opposition denied.

The 14, who activists said began their hunger strike on
Sunday, were among 21 politicians, rights activists and bloggers tried in a
military court on charges including "forming a terrorist group to change
the constitution and its monarchical system" and organising protests.
Eight were sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven are abroad or in hiding.

Activists said the hunger strikers included rights activist
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Al-Haq opposition party leader Hassan Mushaimaa and
Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim opposition leader.

Sharif's wife Farida Ismail said prison authorities had
removed privileges such as access to television to try to force the men to end
the hunger strike in Jau prison. She said they were being force fed.

"These trials were political, they were just revenge by
the government," she said at Waad headquarters.

An interior ministry statement said the hunger strikers were
being properly cared for.

"While it is regrettable that this action may cause
additional hardship for the detainees or put their health at risk, they do have
the right to refuse food," it said, citing general inspector Ibrahim

"All of the inmates have been provided with regular
medical care that is available to them 24 hours a day."

A rights commission on the unrest reported in November that
detainees had been tortured
. It criticised military trials and advised the
authorities to have jail sentences reviewed.

The government, under outside pressure to implement the
recommendations, has said a judicial panel will review some sentences. But they
have not questioned the military verdict against the 21 protest leaders, who
have the right to take the case to the cassation court, the highest appeal

A government official expressed hope some of the jailed
protest leaders would be freed but said others had planned an Islamist coup.

"I am hopeful that a lot of the cases will be reviewed,
but there are some cases to go through and cases have been transferred to the
civilian courts," said Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, a senior
adviser at the Information Affairs Authority and former ambassador to London.

"I'm hopeful for not necessarily all of them, but at
least some of them ... There are those in prison who called for a restructuring
of the country's institutions, for a full-blown revolution and who called for
an Islamic republic using non-peaceful methods," he said.

Al-Haq and two other parties, Wafa and the Freedom Movement,
formed a "Coalition for a Republic" during the protests that called
for the creation of a democratic republic.

Bahrain remains in turmoil with daily clashes in Shi'ite
towns and villages between protesters and riot police that have become more
violent in recent weeks. The economy of Bahrain, a banking and tourism hub, has
been shaken by the unrest.

The daily al-Ayyam - owned by a media adviser to the king -
reported on Tuesday that contacts had begun with unnamed political forces for a
new national dialogue "to bring Bahrainis together and strengthen national

Opposition politicians said no one had contacted them and
the report was window-dressing ahead of the Feb 14 anniversary.

Since the uprising, the government has strengthened
parliament's power to monitor the cabinet, but has not reacted to opposition
demands for a fully empowered elected parliament able to form a government.

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