Bahrain feels heat over hunger strike ahead of Grand Prix

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The Bahraini government was under fresh pressure last night as the United Nations said the regime should consider transferring a jailed human rights activist, who is two months into a hunger strike, to Denmark for medical treatment.

The comments from the UN Secretary-General's spokesman came as activists said they were determined to disrupt the Formula 1 Grand Prix due to be held in the island kingdom in two weeks.

Activists and some British MPs have called for the race to be cancelled, given criticism of Bahrain's human rights record after an uprising by the nation's Shia majority was crushed last year.

The government has been trying to promote the Grand Prix as a symbol that life in Bahrain is returning to normal, with posters everywhere saying Bahrainis "are all one nation". But the hunger strike of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a veteran human rights campaigner with Danish citizenship, has revived the mainly Shia opposition. This is likely to explode if he dies and yesterday his lawyer expressed concern about his health, given the refusal of the authorities to let anybody see him for several days.

The UN spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters yesterday that "in cases where there is a hunger strike, the health and wellbeing of the person should be the foremost concern".

Bahrain's Supreme Judicial Council had a day earlier refused to hand him over to Denmark.

The international pressure on Bahrain was reduced in the second half of last year after King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa promised reforms and expressed regrets for excessive repression. But so far only junior officers in the Bahraini security forces have faced punishment.