Bahrain court delays case in hunger striker appeal

A Bahrain court heard appeals Monday from defense lawyers for a jailed hunger striker and other activists seeking to overturn their sentences linked to the Shiite-led uprising against the Gulf kingdom's Sunni monarchy.

The court set the next hearing for April 30 amid claims by the family of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja that his health is in sharp decline nearly 11 weeks into his protest. Bahrain officials insist al-Khawaja faces no immediate medical risks.

Al-Khawaja's case has become a centerpiece of anti-government protests while adding to international pressure on Bahrain's rulers. Earlier this month, Bahrain rejected Denmark's request to take custody of al-Khawaja, who is also a Danish citizen.

"We consider the situation to be very, very serious," Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal said in a Danish television interview. "We think we're talking about days during which action must be taken if anything has to be achieved in this case."

Al-Khawaja and seven other Shiite activists were sentenced to life in prison last year. The convictions were part of Bahrain's crackdowns during the more than 14-month-old uprising by the country's Shiite majority, which seeks to reduce the wide-ranging powers of the ruling Sunni dynasty.

Thirteen other political figures were sentenced — some in absentia — to lesser prison terms and also are part of the appeal.

Neither al-Khawaja nor any of the other defendants were present at the hearing, which was held under tight security.

Rights organizations criticized the Bahrain court's decision to postpone al-Khawaja's appeal despite international calls for speeding up the judicial process. A statement from the Ireland-based Front Line Defenders said al-Khawaja was again "denied justice."

Al-Khawaja's daughter, Maryam, told the Danish TV2 channel that doctors predict her father "has two or three days left from today," not long enough to make it to the April 30 hearing date.

She also called on the European Union to step up pressures on the Bahraini government.

"Statements are not making a difference anymore," she said. "We need to see real actions against the Bahrani regime for all the human rights violations that are being committed."

At least 50 people have been killed since February 2011 in the unrest in the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Opposition groups claim the most recent fatality came during weekend clashes ahead of Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix, which was canceled last year because of concerns over security. Bahraini authorities promised an investigation into the death of 36-year-old Salah Abbas Habib Musa. But photos of the body show injuries that could be caused by buckshot, which is used by riot police.

Thousands of mourners joined the funeral procession Monday chanting anti-government slogans. Security forces fired tear gas after some protest groups broke away from the funeral to confront police.

Al-Khawaja, 52, is the Front Line Defenders' former Middle East and North Africa director. He has also documented human rights abuses in Bahrain for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Al-Khawaja is married and has four daughters. He had lived in exile for decades. He returned to Bahrain after the government announced a general amnesty in 2001.


Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.