MANAMA (Reuters) - A Shi’ite businessman and member of Bahrain opposition group Wefaq died in police custody on Tuesday, the group said, and the daughter of an arrested activist said she was on a hunger strike.
There was no immediate reaction by state media to the reported death and officials were not available to comment.
Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim rulers quelled weeks of protests led by mostly Shi’ite demonstrators last month by spreading security forces throughout the capital and calling in troops from Sunni-led Gulf Arab states, including oil giant Saudi Arabia.
The government has since arrested hundreds of Shi’ites, replaced editors at an opposition newspaper and fired hundreds of Shi’ite workers who were absent during a strike last month.
Mattar Mattar (Eds: correct), a member of Wefaq, said Kareem Fakhrawi had died in police custody, a week after he failed to return home from a police station where he had tried to complain about his house being demolished by police.
“Either he was sick and didn’t receive treatment or was tortured,” Mattar said.
Fakhrawi’s was the fourth known death in police custody in recent days. Bahrain’s government denies there is torture in Bahrain and says all such allegations will be investigated.
Wefaq said on Tuesday three Shi’ite doctors and several staff from the Education Ministry had been arrested on Monday, bringing the total number of detainees to 453.
“After these problems, many are afraid to contact us,” said Mattar. “I estimate the real number is not less than 600. That’s one in every 1,000 Bahrainis,” he said.
Bahrain said on Monday it had released 86 people held under martial law while “legal measures” were being taken against other detainees.
The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in the Gulf island kingdom, has offered only muted criticism of the government crackdown and analysts say it refrained from pressing Bahrain due to anxieties over interference from its rival Iran, just across the Gulf.
The severity of the crackdown stunned Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, who say they have no ties to non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran. It has also sparked criticism from Iran and Shi’ite groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
State media said on Tuesday Bahrain had put two Iranians and a Bahraini on trial on charges of spying for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.
Zainab Alkhawaja, daughter of a detained activist, wrote a letter addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama on her blog “Angry Arabiya” announcing the start of her hunger strike on Monday and urging him to call for the release of her family.
“I chose to write to you and not to my own government because the al-Khalifa regime has proven that they do not care about our rights, or our lives,” she said.
“I demand the immediate release of my family members. My father: Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. My husband: Wafi Almajed. My brother-in-law: Hussein Ahmed. My uncle: Salah Alkhawaja.”
Activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was in exile for 12 years and briefly imprisoned for political dissent in 2004 after his return, was arrested on Saturday with his two sons-in-law, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights centre said on Saturday.
A pro-government Facebook group called “Together we will expose the traitors,” has posted pictures of demonstrations in Manama and enlarged the faces of protesters holding placards calling for the downfall of the monarchy.
“We cannot live among these traitors,” the posting said. “Please try to find their names so they can be punished.”
State television has also enlarged images of protesters and Wefaq has expressed concern about vigilante justice against Shi’ites suspected of participating in protests.
Sunni backers of the government say the protests were masterminded by foreign countries and that political reforms launched by Bahrain’s king a decade ago have resulted in freedoms unique in the Gulf Arab region.
Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior warned in a statement on Tuesday that funeral processions should not be turned into political demonstrations by showing foreign flags or symbols.
Funerals of those killed in clashes with police or who died in police custody have become the only gatherings at which Shi’ites can express their anger after the government banned all demonstrations.
Reporting by Frederik Richter, additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Dubai; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Jon Hemming