Human rights groups urged Bahrain’s court of appeal on Sunday to quash what they call the “politically motivated” conviction of the leader of the country’s main human rights group.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, received a three-year sentence in August for “involvement in illegal practices, inciting gatherings and calling for unauthorized marches via social networking sites.”

Rajab is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday to appeal his conviction and sentence.

Under Bahrain’s Penal Code, it is a criminal offense for five or more people to gather in a public place to “undermine public security, even if intended to achieve legitimate purpose.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the conviction and prison sentence violate Rajab’s basic right to freedom of assembly.

Although the Bahraini government has publicly accused Rajab of inciting violence during three demonstrations between January and March of this year, HRW say state prosecutors failed to present any evidence to back up the charges.

“The criminal court verdict cites no evidence, not even an allegation, that Nabeel Rajab participated in or advocated violent protests,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

Stork accused the Bahraini authorities of imposing “politically motivated punishment” on Rajab.

Washington-based Human Rights First also slammed the charges against Rajab as “politically motivated and a direct violation of his freedom of expression.”

“Just last month, the Bahraini government agreed to respect these freedoms and to abide by the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review,” Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley said. “The kingdom has already abandoned that promise, as it did every promise of reform made before it.”

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture, has accused the Bahraini authorities of judicial harassment and arbitrary detention in Rajab’s case, calling it “evidence of the continued criminalization of human rights defenders’ activities.”

In August, Rajab won an appeal against a separate three-month prison term imposed after he made comments on Twitter criticizing Bahrain’s Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa.

The calls to quash Rajab’s conviction for protesting came after some 200 anti-government protesters demonstrated in Bahrain’s capital Manama on Friday, demanding that the activist be set free.

Riot police dispersed the demonstrators by using sound grenades and made a few arrests, Reuters reported.

Also on Friday, Bahraini police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters at a second, larger prodemocracy rally in Manama, led by Bahrain’s main opposition bloc, the Shi’ite al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, according to Reuters.

“The regime in Bahrain continues to escalate its brutal crackdown against the people and the leaders of the Bahraini opposition by suppressing all peaceful protests that take to the streets on daily basis from different areas around Bahrain,” al-Wefaq said in a statement published on its website, which was co-signed by four other opposition parties including the leftist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad).

“The regime spares no effort to use excessive force against the people of the opposition after tense announcements by high-ranked officials targeting leaders of the opposition,” the opposition group added.

After the rally, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry claimed on Twitter that police stepped in after the protest turned violent.

The Bahrain police website also reported that officers had arrested “thugs” who had thrown Molotov cocktails, iron rods and stones at police. “Police responded by using the necessary force to restore order.

Several thugs and rioters were arrested and will be referred to the public prosecutor. An investigation has begun to identify others involved in the incidents,” the police statement said.

However, a spokesperson for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights later told reporters that the rally had been peaceful.

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