DUBAI: A Bahrain court sentenced eight Shia opposition activists to life in prison Wednesday for “plotting to overthrow” the kingdom’s Sunni rulers, nearly a week ahead of a national dialogue proposed by the king.
The National Safety Court of first instance also jailed 13 others with sentences carrying terms between two to 15 years on similar charges, state news agency BNA added.
A member of Bahrain’s largest Shia formation, the Islamic National Accord Association (Al-Wefaq), slammed the sentence as contradicting King Hamad’s calls for dialogue, set to begin on July 1.
“Is this the atmosphere for dialogue?” asked Khalil Marzooq in excerpts of a speech he gave at a press conference in Manama posted on his Facebook page.
“When the one calling for change and reform is sentenced to life in prison, how will others take part” in dialogue, he asked.
“There are political forces, some of whom have received harsh sentences today, which have not been invited for dialogue,” he added. “How will there be a dialogue without those figures?”
The eight activists sentenced to life include Hassan Mashaima, head of the Shia opposition Haq movement, and Abdulwahab Hussein, who leads the Shia Wafa Islamic Movement, as well as Shia rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is also a Danish citizen.
Activist and Haq member Abduljalil al-Singace, who was released in February after six months in jail, was also sentenced to life.
The remaining four are Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, who holds a Swedish passport; his cousin Abduljalil al-Muqdad and Saeed Mirza, both of whom are Wafa members, and Said Abdulnabi Shihab, who was sentenced in absentia.
Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of Waed secular group, who played a prominent role in the month-long protests to demand democratic reforms that was crushed in mid-March, received a five-year sentence, BNA said.
Sharif and several leading opposition figures were arrested in the wake of the crackdown on protests, which challenged the regime of the Shiite-majority kingdom that is ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.
Nine of the defendants had been in custody on similar charges in the past before being set free under a royal pardon in February aimed at calming protests.
Mashaima, who was abroad, returned to Bahrain following the pardon. His son Ali Hassan Mashaima, who is in London, is being tried in absentia and was sentenced with five others to 15 years.
The sentences sparked protests in several Shia-populated villages including Daraz, Bani Jamrah, Sitra, Nuwaidrat, Aaali, Sanabis and Karzakan, activists told AFP.
The protesters “blocked the main roads of their cities to delay the riot police from entering the cities during the demonstrations time,” said one of the activists, adding that more marches are planned later in the afternoon.
A group of women also demonstrated outside Hussein’s house, protesting his sentence and rejecting dialogue, said the activist.
Al-Wefaq, whose two members and former MPs Matar Matar and Jawad Fayrouz, are also being tried by the court over similar charges, has still not made an “official decision on whether or not it will take part in the dialogue,” said Marzooq.
Scores of activists are facing trial on charges linked to the protests in a semi-martial court set up under a “state of national safety” decreed by King Hamad a day before protesters were evicted from a Manama square in mid-March.
Authorities backed by troops that rolled into Bahrain from fellow Gulf nations quelled the protests while security forces set about arresting hundreds of activists, as well as doctors, medics and teachers accused of backing protesters.
Bahrain’s interior ministry said 24 people, including four policemen, were killed in the unrest. The opposition said scores were arrested, amid wide claims of torture, while hundreds were dismissed from their jobs.
Hundreds of Shias have been referred to courts over the protests.
Four people have been sentenced to death and three others to life in prison over the killing of two policemen. Nine others were jailed for 20 years after being convicted of abducting a policeman.
Authorities in the Gulf state lifted the state of emergency earlier this month.