Bahrain prisoners suspend hunger strike as crown prince heads to Washington

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH (Reuters) - Hundreds of political prisoners in Bahrain suspended a hunger strike after the government promised to improve prison conditions, rights groups said, as the Gulf state's crown prince heads to Washington to improve ties.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said the prisoners agreed to suspend the strike, which started on Aug. 7, until Sept. 30 to allow implementation of the promised changes.

The Bahraini government said in a statement sent to Reuters that the inmates had ended the hunger strike.

"The inmates on hunger strike have decided to end it as of Sept. 11, 2023, after visiting hours were reorganised, the hours of open air access were increased, and the number of contacts that could be contacted was increased too," the statement said.

BIRD's Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a Bahraini activist living in exile, said the government had shown some flexibility, adding the proposed deal also included ending isolation for some prisoners.

However, prominent rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja resumed his hunger strike on Wednesday after authorities did not allow him to get to a scheduled medical appointment, his daughter, Zainab, told Reuters.

The government denied al-Khawaja was on hunger strike, adding he has "repeatedly and voluntarily declined to attend his regular medical appointments".

"Abdulhadi al-Khawaja's health is stable with no serious concerns," it said.

The Bahraini authorities did not respond to questions on whether the compromise was linked to a visit by Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa to the United States.

But it said Bahrain looked forward to building ties during the crown prince's official visit to Washington this week.

The Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa dynasty has largely kept a lid on dissent since Riyadh sent troops to help it crush an "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011 by the mostly Shi'ite opposition, and the hunger strike is the biggest organised protest in years.

Bahrain was the only Gulf monarchy to face serious unrest during the Arab Spring protests, with demonstrations that continued, in lower numbers, until 2013.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)