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Bahraini Activist On Hunger Strike For Eight Weeks


Abdulhadi al-Khawaja is a human rights activist from Bahrain who's in prison there and has been on hunger strike for eight weeks. After taking part in last year's demonstrations urging a dialogue between Bahrain's Sunni Muslim ruling family and the country's Shiite majority, al-Khawaja was arrested. Last spring, he was charged with organizing and managing a terrorist organization.

He was tried and convicted by a military court and sentenced to life in prison. Bahrain, today, said that despite his lengthy hunger strike he has been taking fluids orally and intravenously and that he shows no signs of critical medical problems. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja also has Danish citizenship and Denmark has been trying to arrange his transport to that country. Meanwhile, a global campaign by human rights groups is demanding his release.

Joining us from Bahrain's capital, Manama, is Reem Khalifa who's been writing about this story for the Associated Press. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And we've heard the official word from Bahrain about Mr. al-Khawaja's health. Who actually has been able to see him and visit him in prison and report independently on his health?

KHALIFA: Well, the only person who managed to see him just a few days ago was his lawyer, Mohammed al-Jishi. And he managed to take a photograph of him, which is distributed now in the international media. And this picture made a big impact on the Bahraini audience to see him in that situation. And actually, he managed to talk to his wife. According to his wife, his voice was very weak. His voice was shaky and he complained for ill treatment for the nurses and the guards who will try to feed him by force against his wish.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about this idea of Mr. al-Khawaja being possibly sent to Denmark. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called on Bahrain to consider sending him to Denmark in light of his health. Would he accept being sent to Denmark or does he want to remain in Bahrain to make his case?

KHALIFA: Well, you know, talking to his family, they prefer if he will be transferred to Denmark because of his critical health condition. But his hunger strike is to release him and to release the political prisoners in Bahrain.

SIEGEL: How important a figure these days is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the hunger-striker, to the Bahraini opposition?

KHALIFA: Well, many young people, they consider him like a Che Guevara, Bahrain Che Guevara figure. And he is a symbol of freedom and you can see even a change with the slogans. Today, for example, there were hundreds of protesters in west capitol Manama. They were protesting with the anti-government slogans and also anti-U.S. slogans and especially that the United Nations was the first to issue a statement concerned about al-Khawaja while the State Department, it was the second.

SIEGEL: How does the Bahraini regime regard the possibility of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, in fact, dying in the prison hospital?

KHALIFA: I mean, after the United Nation General Secretary Mr. Ban Ki-moon issued his statement, all of a sudden, we saw for the first time that the officials admitting that they have a prisoner who is on hunger strike, saying that if this prisoner continue on hunger strike, his life will be in danger.

SIEGEL: So just the admission there is one sign of progress.

KHALIFA: Yes. But today, the respond that came on Mr. Ban Ki-moon statement from the Bahraini foreign minister is saying that they have no right to interfere with the Bahrain internal issue, as the U.N. charter does not allow the infringement of the sovereignty.

SIEGEL: Reem Khalifa, thank you very much for talking with us today.

KHALIFA: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Reem Khalifa has been writing about the story of the imprisonment and hunger strike of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja in Bahrain for the Associated Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.