Bahraini Shiite demonstrators hold posters of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja
Bahraini Shiite demonstrators hold posters of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja during a protest calling for his release in the village of Jidhafs, west of Manama, on April 6, 2012. Bahrain's highest appeals court has ordered the retrial of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a jailed opposition activist who has been on hunger strike since February 8. © - AFP/File
Bahraini Shiite demonstrators hold posters of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja
Last updated: April 30, 2012

Bahrain orders retrial of hunger striker

Bahrain's highest appeals court on Monday ordered the retrial of opposition activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike since February 8, and other dissidents, lawyers said.

"The court accepted the appeal (against the verdict of a special tribunal) and ordered a trial in the court of appeal," a civil tribunal, Mohamed al-Jishy, a member of Khawaja's defence team, told AFP after a brief hearing.

"We were hoping the verdict would be annulled but the decision will give us an opportunity to defend our clients," Jishy said, adding that no date has yet been set for the new trial.

Jail terms were handed down for Khawaja and 20 other mostly Shiite activists in the Shiite-majority Gulf kingdom after they were convicted in June of plotting to overthrow its Sunni rulers.

Seven of them, including Khawaja, were jailed for life, while 14 others were sentenced to between two and 15 years in prison.

Of the 21 defendants, seven were convicted in absentia and remain at large.

"I think he will not stop this (hunger) strike as this verdict brought no big change" to his situation, said another lawyer, Mohammed al-Tajer.

A statement carried by state news agency BNA confirmed that the defendants will be tried again in a civil court and that the new trial could see their sentences reduced.

The defendants will remain in prison until the next hearing.

Meanwhile, Khawaja's daughter, Maryam, lashed out at Bahraini judicial system, saying the appeals court was a "farce."

"There is no real judicial process involved at all; all we have are kangaroo courts," she said, more than 80 days since her father started his hunger strike.

"They call this an appeals court, but it's a farce. All they're doing is trying to relieve international pressure."

More than two months on from the launching of his hunger strike, Khawaja went "missing" for six days. After his family expressed fears for his safety, they found out Sunday that he was being force-fed through the nose, said his daughter.

"He had been drugged, tied to the bed and force-fed through the nose," she said. "We consider this torture, partly because he was put in solitary confinement while they force-fed him."

The Bahraini health authorities have denied the family's claims.

"In response to claims made by Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja's family members today, we want to be clear that the patient has not been force-fed or treated against his will," a spokesperson for the Bahrain Defence Forces Hospital said.

Bahrain's most prominent activist remained determined to continue on his hunger strike, until he is freed from jail.

"Despite their force-feeding him," said his daughter, the authorities "can't break him." Khawaja, 52, has previously said his goal was "freedom or death."

Bahrain's main Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, called for the release of its members, saying "the political prisoners ... told the court today that they have been beaten and tortured in order to extract confessions."

Bahrain needs a political solution to get out of the current crisis, it added.

New York-based Human Rights Watch also criticised the Bahraini judicial system and called for the immediate release of Khawaja and other dissidents.

"The military court's original verdict was absolutely mind-boggling -- it did not mention a single actual criminal offence beyond acts relating to their basic human rights," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his co-defendants should not have to spend even one more day in prison for so-called crimes of speech and peaceful assembly."

Ahead of Monday's hearing, witnesses said dozens of Shiite protesters gathered outside the Court of Cassation, Bahrain's highest appeals court, waving pictures of the defendants on which they wrote: "Trials of oppression."

Security forces cordoned off the courthouse but no incidents were reported.

Protesters also blocked roads and set tyres ablaze in Shiite villages around the capital, the sources said.

The interior ministry said "groups of saboteurs" blocked two roads which the security forces later reopened.

Khawaja, who has become a symbol of Bahrain's opposition movement, was arrested last April shortly after the regime crackdown on a month-long Shiite-led uprising that killed 35 people, according to an independent probe.

Bahrain has repeatedly come under pressure from rights groups as well as Western governments to release Khawaja.

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