Bahrain court upholds sentences on anti-government activists

Anti-government protesters wave Bahraini flags during a protest in Maqusha village, west of Manama.(REUTERS / Hamad I Mohammed)
A Bahrain appeals court has upheld the jail sentences on 20 opposition figures accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Eight activists were sentenced to life in prison.

Among those given life sentences were opposition leaders Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Hassan Mushaimaa, who support making Bahrain into a republic.

The other 12 opposition leaders have been sentenced to lesser terms, ranging from five to 15 years in prison. The defendants say they plan to appeal.

The group includes high-profile leaders of the country’s Shia-led protest movement who are fighting for a greater political voice in the Sunni dominated country.

The official Bahrain News Agency said the charges include "plotting to overthrow the regime" and establishing "foreign intelligence contacts" in breach of the constitution.

Bahrain has been rocked by unrest since February 2011, when demonstrators occupied a prominent landmark in the capital Manama, demanding more democracy and an end to discrimination against the Shia community.

"All the accused are guilty in the case of taking part in a conspiracy to overturn the system of government, contacts with foreign bodies and violation of the constitution," the state news agency BNA said, referring to them as a "terrorist group."

The verdicts were initially issued by a military court under temporary martial law-style rules after the government launched a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations last year. A retrial was granted, but only limited changes in some charges were made in the hearings, defense lawyer Jalil al-Aradi told AP.

Human rights groups are calling for the activists’ release, claiming that no evidence was presented to show the leaders participated in any violence during the demonstrations in February and March 2011.

"We totally reject today's verdict, which is clearly not a step toward beginning to solve the issues in Bahrain," former parliament member Abdul Jalil Khalil, a member of the country's main Shia political bloc Al Wefaq told AP.

Shia Muslims represent about 70 per cent of Bahrain’s population, but claim they face discrimination and exclusion from top government posts.

“The only thing that will bring stability is when their demands are met to be part of the political system. They need to be part of the executive branch. They want to be part of the legislative branch….they want to be part of the security so the security isn’t used against them,” Bahrain opposition party member Khalil Al-Marzooq told RT.

Sunni leaders have jump started a series of reforms which give more power to the elected parliament, but opposition leaders say the gesture isn’t enough to break up the ruling family’s near monopoly of government control.

“The Hamad regime doesn’t want a solution because the ruling family wants to control the decision making and continue to rule the country,” Al-Marzooq said.

The controversial decision is expected to escalate street protests which have taken place almost nonstop since the country’s uprising began 19 months ago. It has led to the deaths of more than 50 people.

The rest of the world, including Washington, has been hesitant to give the same amount of attention to Bahrain as they have given to other Arab-Spring countries. However, some say such international support is entirely necessary.

“The international community is not very assertive with the Bahraini regime and they aren’t giving the same attention to Bahrain that they are giving to other countries. This is the key problem…without bringing this regime to their obligations that comply with international law, no progress will happen in Bahrain,” Al-Marzooq said.