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Rights group urges Bahrain to free hunger striker

SHARE Rights group urges Bahrain to free hunger striker

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Amnesty International on Friday urged Bahrain to free a leading human rights activist who is on a hunger strike and reminded the Gulf kingdom's rulers to fulfill promises to release all those jailed for speaking out during the country's uprising.

The rights group said Abdulhadi al-Khawaja should be released immediately because of fears the "activist is at risk of death" after more than 50 days on a hunger strike. Al-Khawajah has been refusing food since Feb. 8.

Al-Khawaja is serving a life sentence for his role in last year's uprising. He was arrested in April during a government crackdown on protests by the country's Shiite majority that has been demanding greater rights from Sunni rulers. He was convicted of anti-state crimes in a special security court in June, along with seven other opposition figures.

At least 50 people have been killed in the unrest in the strategic island nation that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Hundreds of protesters, activists, athletes and Shiite professionals such as doctors and nurses have been jailed and put on trial in the special tribunal that was set up after Bahrain imposed martial law last March to quell the unrest.

Amnesty called on Bahrain to release al-Khawaja and fulfill its promise to free all those who were jailed for speaking out during the revolt.

"The Bahraini authorities have made pledges that they would release people who were imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression, but the continued imprisonment of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja demonstrates that they are not serious about fulfilling such promises," said Philip Luther, the group's Middle East and North Africa Director in a statement.

Bahraini authorities did not immediately comment on Amnesty's appeal.

In June, Bahrain lifted emergency rule that was imposed to end the unrest. The special court with military prosecutors was abolished in November and protests-related trials were transferred to civilian courts after international investigators criticized Bahrain for trying civilians behind closed doors in a military-style court.

Lawyers are expected to appeal al-Khawaja's sentence in a civilian court Monday.

Al-Khawaja, 52, is a former Middle East and North Africa director of Frontline Defenders Rights organization. He has also documented human rights abuses in Bahrain for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Al-Khawaja, who is married and has four daughters, is also a citizen of Denmark, where he lived in exile for decades. He returned to Bahrain after the government announced a general amnesty in 2001.

Amnesty said Danish diplomats have visited him in prison several times and confirmed his deteriorating health.