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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 3:47 pm

Denmark PM to Bahrain: release jailed activist

The Associated Press

Denmark's prime minister urged Bahrain to release a jailed activist with dual citizenship on Tuesday, saying he's in "very critical" condition after a two-month hunger strike, but the Gulf kingdom denies that his health is failing.

Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 52, and seven other opposition leaders were sentenced to life in prison for anti-state crimes last year in a special security court that was set up after Bahrain imposed martial law last March to quell political unrest. Bahrain's majority Shiites began an uprising in February 2011 seeking a greater political voice.

Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt told reporters that Denmark is using its international contacts to press for his release.

"What we're hearing now is that al-Khawaja's condition is very critical. And we continue our efforts at all levels," she said.

Bahrain's government however issued medical details claiming that he showed no signs of critical problems and is taking taking fluids orally or by an IV drip.

International pressure on the Gulf state has been stepped up after a judicial panel last week refused Denmark's request to take custody of al-Khawaja.

Human rights organizations have urged Bahrain to free al-Khawaja immediately because of fears he could die. A statement by the London-based Amnesty International on Tuesday said the activist's "health is rapidly deteriorating as he passes his 60th day of hunger strike."

Al-Khawaja, 52, is a former Middle East and North Africa director of the Ireland-based Frontline Defenders Rights organization. He has been refusing food since Feb. 8.

Bahrain's opposition supporters have been staging daily rallies for al-Khawaja's release, frequently clashing with security forces. The demonstrations have helped fuel rising tensions in the kingdom less than two weeks before it is to stage the Formula One grand prix race - its premier international event that was canceled last year because of the political unrest.

Al-Khawaja was arrested last April during a government crackdown on dissent in the tiny, but strategically important Gulf island that is the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. At least 50 people have died during 14 months of unrest.

The activist's lawyers appealed his conviction in Bahrain's highest court last week when judges refused to release him on bail.

Another appeals hearing for al-Khawaja is set for April 23.

Denmark's Foreign Ministry said the Danish ambassador to Bahrain visited Abdulhadi al-Khawaja at a military hospital in Manama on Tuesday.

"They talked for about 20 minutes," said Ole Egberg Mikkelsen, a Danish Foreign Ministry official, adding the embassy was awaiting approval for another visit Wednesday.