By Aziz El Yaakoubi
DUBAI (Reuters) - Political prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain have rebuffed government concessions and will extend their protest, raising the stakes in the biggest showdown for years between dissidents and the Saudi-backed ruling family.
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.
Neighbouring Sunni Saudi Arabia has historically been keenly sensitive to political upheaval in Bahrain where its Al Khalifa allies rule over a Shi'ite majority and where it has previously accused longtime Shi'ite rival Iran of stirring unrest.
Rights groups and families of detainees say some 800 prisoners are on hunger strike at the capital's Jau prison over what they call harsh conditions there, and they said on Thursday that the prisoners had rejected government concessions.
"Based on conversations with prisoners following the Interior Ministry statement, it is clear that the hunger strike will continue until the government addresses their concerns seriously and in good faith," said Sayed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
Alwadaei said prisoners are demanding an end to isolation of some inmates, increased daily open air time, permission to hold prayers in congregation, amended visitation rules and access to more medical care and education.
GOVERNMENT DISPUTES NUMBER ON HUNGER STRIKE
The interior ministry said on Monday that it planned to double the daily outdoor time to two hours, increase the duration of family visits and review rates for phone calls after the hunger strike began on Aug. 7.
Bahraini authorities deny targeting the political opposition and say they are protecting national security. They have said they prosecute in accordance with international law those who commit crimes and have rejected criticism over the conduct of trials and detention conditions.
The government disputes that 800 prisoners have joined the hunger strike, with the General Directorate of Reform and Rehabilitation (GDRR) saying in an emailed statement to Reuters that the number of detainees who have reported being on hunger strike "is 121 and at no point was it over 124".
Bahrain was the only Gulf monarchy to face serious unrest during the Arab Spring protests, with demonstrations that continued, in lower numbers, until 2013.
Since then, Bahrain has dissolved the main opposition groups and prosecuted thousands of people and stripped hundreds of their nationalities in mass trials. Many have fled abroad.
Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja said her father Abdulhadi, a prominent opposition figure, was rushed to intensive care twice after the hunger strike started and was denied access to a cardiologist to treat his heart condition.
Ahmed Jaafar, another prisoner, was put in isolation after he started the hunger strike and was hospitalised on Aug. 27, his family said in a statement.
The government's GDRR said prisoners taking part in the strike are provided with the access and opportunity to undergo medical check-ups on a daily basis.
"No detainees taking part in the protest have required critical care or hospitalisation. Any claims to the contrary are false," it said.
The United Nations human rights office said it was ready to conduct an assessment of prison conditions in Bahrain and give advice to authorities in line with international standards.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; editing by Angus McDowall and Mark Heinrich)