Bahrain sentences 10 Shi'ites to life in prison

"It's good no one got the death penalty but still, this will not be the right way to start dialogue... This is very bad."

June 22, 2011 14:11
3 minute read.
Protesters are seen at Pearl Square, Manama.

Bahrain protests Pearl Square_311 reuters. (photo credit: Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters)

MANAMA - Bahrain sentenced 10 prominent Shi'ite activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on Wednesday on charges of plotting a coup during protests in the Gulf island kingdom earlier this year.

The sentencing could inflame tensions in the Gulf Arab kingdom, where demonstrators have launched small protests every day after emergency law was lifted on June 1. It may also threaten a national dialogue planned to start next month.

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Seconds after the verdict was issued, one of 21 defendants lined up in gray prison suits shouted: "We will continue our peaceful struggle." Other defendants responded by shaking their fists and shouting "peaceful, peaceful". Police officers pulled them out of the courtroom.

Some of the defendant's family members shouted "God is great", and one woman was dragged out of the courtroom. Her relatives say her whereabouts are unknown.

Among those who received life sentences was Shi'ite dissident Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the hard-line opposition group Haq, and Abduljalil al-Singace from the same party. Haq joined two other groups in calling for the overthrow of the monarchy during mass protests in February and March.

Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular leftist Waad party, was sentenced to five years in prison. Waad and Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq had called for reform of the monarchy.

Representatives from several European embassies as well as the United States were in the courtroom, where other defendants received prison terms ranging from two to 15 years.

The charges ranged from incitement to attempting to overthrow the government by force in collusion with "a terrorist organization" working for a foreign country.

Bahrain's Sunni rulers, backed by forces from neighboring Sunni Gulf Arab states, crushed weeks of protests in March mostly by members of the Shi'ite majority. Manama says the protests had a sectarian agenda backed by Shi'ite power Iran.

The opposition argues the charges aim to distract Bahrain's ally the United States, which has its Navy's Fifth Fleet in the country, from activists' calls for democratic reform.

Some observers have suggested King Hamad bin Isa may try to cool tensions before the dialogue by granting a general amnesty to many of those jailed in recent trials. But opposition groups said they were surprised by the severity of the sentences before the planned talks.

"It's good no one got the death penalty but still, this will not be the right way to start dialogue. The sentences were much harsher than we expected," said a member of Bahrain's leading opposition group, Wefaq. "This is very bad."

Government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Members of the secular Waad party said they had been expecting Sharif, the party head, to be released.

"This was really surprising," one Waad member said. "It may affect our decision to go to dialogue but it's unclear, we still want to move forward for the country's future and there is always appeal."

The Danish-Bahraini citizen Abdulhady al-Khawaja, a rights activist, also received a life sentence.

"People will go out today now for sure, people will be angry. They will go to the streets because all of these were unfair trials," a relative of Khawaja said.

Bahrain says it has tried only a small number of the demonstrators, targeting those who were involved in criminal activity. The government contests the opposition's estimate that some 400 people are on trial, saying the number is far smaller.

"It seemed everything went according to the rules," one diplomat told Reuters after the trial. "At the same time it feels like the sentence was decided before it even started."

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