Bahrain unrest: Eight Shia activists sentenced to life

Court painting (BNA) The activists were tried by a special security court

Bahrain has sentenced eight Shia pro-democracy activists to life in jail for "plotting to overthrow the government", the state news agency says.

They were among 21 opposition figures tried by a special security court. Others got sentences of up to 15 years.

Ahead of the verdict, their supporters blocked roads and staged rallies.

Bahrain's mainly Shia protesters have been calling for democratic reforms and more rights for the country's Shia majority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

They have long complained of systematic discrimination, and point to high unemployment, poor housing and the fact that they are denied high-level positions in government departments.

A wave of peaceful protests swept the country in February and March, but they were put down by force by the government, which called in troops from neighbouring Gulf states. Emergency law was only lifted on 1 June.

The US criticised the severity of the sentences, while correspondents say the move could re-ignite simmering tensions in the tiny Gulf state.

'Bahraini blogger'

Analysis

The scenes in the military court were emotional, relatives have told the BBC. The judge read the sentences very quickly, but still, prominent defendants spoke out. Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the secular Waad party cried: "Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. Our people want freedom." Rights campaigner Abdulhadi al-Khawaja shouted: "We will continue to fight for our rights and our people" as he was sentenced to life.

At that point, according to an eyewitness, his daughter Zainab called out three times: "God is great". A woman military officer clamped her hand over Zainab's mouth and she was hustled out of the courtroom. Relatives asked that their names not be used, worried the sentences would be increased.

With a national dialogue just days away, the harshness of the sentences underlines the contradictory approach the regime is taking to resolving the crisis in the country.

Among those who received life sentences are:

• Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of the country's leading human rights activists

• Abd al-Jalil Singace, head of the Shia-dominated Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy

• Hassan Mushaima, who returned from self-imposed exile in the UK in February after the Bahraini government dropped charges against him in a bid to appease protesters

In addition to the life sentences, 10 activists were given 15 years in jail, two others were given five years and one man received a two-year jail term.

Seven people were sentenced in absentia. Among them were Hassan Mushaima's son Ali - who is in the UK - and Ali Abdulemam, an outspoken government critic known as the "Bahraini blogger" who went into hiding in March. Both men were given 15 years.

The activists have 15 days to appeal the rulings, the state news agency BNA said.

Bahraini authorities claim that those charged plotted to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni rulers "by force and intelligence with a terror group colluding with a foreign country" - in an apparent reference to Iran.

The government and its supporters have accused Iran and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah of helping to stir up the unrest, in which nearly 30 people - mostly unarmed protesters - have been killed.

'Custodial abuse'

Bahraini opposition leaders deny any ties to Iran and accuse leaders of using these allegations to detain Shia activists. More than 400 people have been arrested this year.

Shia protest in Sitra, south of Manama. 17 June 2011 Rallies by Shia Muslims, like this one last week near the capital Manama, have continued

At least four have died in police custody and rights groups have raised concerns about the torture and abuse of detainees.

US state department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said the US was concerned by the "severity" of the sentences and the use of military courts to try civilians.

"Such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens," he told reporters.

Ahead of the trial, witnesses told AP news agency that Shia demonstrators made roadblocks with sand and debris, and called for marches to oppose the trial. No violence was reported.

The trial is one of several taking place in Bahrain following the protests. Next week, the trial resumes for more than 30 doctors and nurses accused of supporting the protests.

Family members have told the BBC that some of the medical personnel were tortured into making false confessions.

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