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Military court sentences rights activists to life

Shia Muslim women take part in an anti-government rally organised by the al-Wefaq opposition group last week. Bahrain's government says it has only tried a small number of those involved in recent protests
Shia Muslim women take part in an anti-government rally organised by the al-Wefaq opposition group last week. Bahrain's government says it has only tried a small number of those involved in recent protests

REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Eight Bahraini human rights and political activists - including former head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Adbulhadi al-Khawaja and renowned blogger Abduljalil al-Singace - were given life sentences today by a military court, which found them guilty of plotting a coup against the government during two months of unrest earlier this year, report BCHR, Human Rights Watch, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the "Guardian".

Another 13 protesters were given sentences of between two to 15 years, in a further government attempt to crush dissent that has erupted in the kingdom since February in the midst of other Arab Spring uprisings.

Bahrain's ruling dynasty claimed that the men were part of a "sedition ring", backed by Iran and Hezbollah, and accused them of trying to "topple the regime," reports Human Rights Watch.

Al-Khawaja's daughter, Zainab, who was arrested last week for trying to stage a sit-in at a UN office to protest the detention of her father and other family members, was violently removed from the courtroom after protesting against the sentence. BCHR says she has been charged with contempt.

As verdicts were read out, people in the public gallery chanted "solidarity, solidarity, we shall overthrow the regime," reports the "Guardian". Bahraini security officers were congratulating each other inside the courthouse, according to bystanders.

The trials were held despite the government pronouncing the end of three months of martial law earlier this month, which had given the exclusively Sunni security forces extra powers of detention and arrest.

The verdicts were immediately condemned by rights groups locally and worldwide, who said all those found guilty had been campaigning to end discrimination by the Sunni leaders. Almost all activists who took to the streets of Manama in February and March were Shia Muslims, who make up 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but feel largely disenfranchised, says the "Guardian".

Rights groups have urged Bahrain to halt the special military court proceedings. "This court does not meet international standards for human rights and for fair trials. The people were sentenced for expressing their opinion and for opposing the government," said BCHR president Nabeel Rajab.

Human Rights Watch called the military trials a "violation of international law."

In a meeting earlier this month with U.S. President Barack Obama, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa pledged he is seeking national dialogue with the protesters. But Bahrain's crackdown contradicts statements the prince made, Human Rights Watch and BCHR said. "The people who are behind bars should take part in the dialogue," noted Rajab.

Activists called for protesters to take to the streets in Manama immediately in defiance of the verdicts.

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