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Bahrain hunger striker wins retrial

A Bahrain court has ordered retrials for a prominent hunger striker and 20 others convicted by a military-led tribunal in a crackdown against an 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 group, which includes some of the top figures in protests by Bahrain's majority Shiites seeking to break the near monopoly on power held by the Western-backed Sunni dynasty.

At least 50 people have been killed in unrest since February 2011 in the strategic kingdom, home to the US 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 defence arguments," it said.

Defence lawyer 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.

It also was not immediately clear whether al-Khawaja would continue his hunger strike, which began on February 8 and which, according to his family, brought him close to death. His wife visited him on 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 were sentenced to lesser jail terms as part of the group accused of anti-state crimes, and seven 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.

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