MANAMA, Bahrain – A Bahrain court Monday ordered retrials for a prominent hunger striker and 20 others convicted by a military-led tribunal in crackdowns against a 14-month-old uprising in the Gulf kingdom.
The decision, which shifts the cases to Bahrain's highest appeals court, was seen as a victory for supporters of rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and other opposition figures sentenced last year under martial law-style rules imposed by Bahrain's rulers.
But there appeared no immediate possibility for the release of the most high-profile members of the group, which includes some of the main figures in protests by Bahrain's majority Shiites seeking to break the near monopoly on power held by the Western-backed Sunni dynasty.
One of those convicted, Alhur al-Sumaikh, had his two-year sentence reduced to six months by the court Monday and was released because of time served, family members said.
At least 50 people have been killed in unrest since February 2011 in the strategic kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Al-Khawaja's nearly three-month hunger strike has become the latest rallying point for the demonstrations.
The official Bahrain News Agency described the appeals process for al-Khawaja as practically the same as a new trial.
"The court reconsiders the proceedings from the beginning and listens to the witnesses and the prosecution and defense arguments," it said.
Defense attorney Hassan Radhi said the appeals court will decide whether to grant bail while the review is under way. No date has been set to begin the appeal proceedings, he said.
Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to free al-Khawaja and 13 other jailed leaders of last year's anti-government protests immediately.
"The military court's original verdict was absolutely mind-boggling - it did not mention a single actual criminal offense beyond acts relating to their basic human rights," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "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."
It also was not immediately clear whether al-Khawaja would continue his hunger strike, which began Feb. 8 and which, according to his family, brought him close to death.
His wife visited him Sunday and claimed he was force fed with tubes and IVs against his will. Bahraini officials said al-Khawaja agreed to all procedures.
Al-Khawaja and seven other top opposition figures were sentenced last year to life in prison by a military-led court, which was later disbanded.
Six others, including al-Sumaikh, were sentenced to lesser jail terms as part of the group accused of anti-state crimes, and activists were convicted in absentia.
For months, the jailed activists have fought the sentences, claiming violations of legal rights in the now-defunct military court and torture behind bars. None of the defendants appeared in court for Monday's session.
Earlier this month, Bahrain rejected a request by Denmark to take custody of al-Khawaja, who is also a Danish citizen.
In Denmark, the country's foreign minister, Villy Soevndal, called the court decision "positive as a starting point" but noted, "the case is not resolved yet."
"Release him. Let him return to Denmark so he can get the proper medical treatment here," he said on Danish TV.
In an earlier statement, he urged for "a fast humanitarian solution."
"We hope that the Bahraini authorities, based on today's ruling, will fulfill this demand," added Soevndal, who also appealed for Bahrain to grant the Danish ambassador immediate access to al-Khawaja.
A similar retrial process is under way in a civilian court for 20 medical professionals convicted by the military-led tribunal of anti-state crimes and sentenced to five to 15 years in prison. The next hearing in their case is scheduled for May 10.
Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.