Manama: Bahraini protesters poured back to the streets on Wednesday after a security court sentenced eight Shi’ite activists to life in prison in the latest blow by the Western-backed kingdom to cripple the biggest Arab Spring opposition movement in the Gulf.
The fast and angry reaction to the verdicts - the most significant display of unrest in weeks - underscored the volatility in the island nation after four months of unrest and raised questions about whether any credible pro-reform leaders will heed calls by the Sunni monarchy to open talks next week.
In size, Bahrain is little more than a speck off the coast of Saudi Arabia. But it draws in some of the region`s major players: hosting the US Navy`s 5th Fleet and serving as a growing point of friction between Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Security forces used tear gas to drive back hundreds of Shi’ite marchers trying to reach a central square in the capital Manama, which was once the hub of their protests for greater rights. In other Shi’ite areas, protesters gathered in the streets but were held back by riot police. No injuries were reported.
Bahrain has allowed two major rallies this month by the main opposition party, but the confrontations on Wednesday were among the biggest challenges to security forces since martial law-style rule was lifted June 01.
Shi’ites account for 70 percent of Bahrain`s population of some 525,000, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being barred from top government and political posts.
The protests - claiming at least 31 lives since February - have put US officials in the difficult position of both denouncing the violence and standing by Bahrain`s rulers and their call for dialogue. In response, opposition groups have increased demands that include an end to the political trials and withdrawal of a Saudi-led regional force helping prop up Bahrain`s ruling family.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US was "concerned about the severity" of the sentences and the use of the military-linked security courts. He noted that President Barack Obama said in May that "such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain`s citizens”.
"We continue to urge the Bahraini government to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings, conducted in full accordance with Bahrain`s international legal obligations, and to create the conditions for a meaningful, inclusive and credible dialogue," he said.
But a leading opposition figure cast doubt on whether talks can get under way.
"We should conduct the dialogue in an open atmosphere, not when people are being arrested," said Khalil al-Marzooq, who was among the 18 Shi’ite Parliament members who staged a mass resignation to protest the crackdowns earlier this year.
The charges at the latest security court trial show the depths of the tensions. The activists were convicted of trying to overthrow Bahrain`s 200-year-old monarchy and having links to "a terrorist organisation abroad" - an obvious reference to claims that Iranian-backed Hezbollah is behind the unrest.
Eight received life sentences while 13 others received shorter prison terms apparently because they weren`t considered leaders.
Bahrain`s rulers fear that any Shi’ite gains in the country could open new footholds for influence by Shi’ite power Iran.
Shi’ite leaders in Bahrain repeatedly have denied any ties to Iran and accuse leaders of using the fears of Iranian string-pulling to wage crackdowns that have included hundreds of arrests and purges from jobs and universities.
Fourteen of the 21 convicted are in custody while the rest were sentenced in absentia by the security court, which uses military prosecutors and a military-civilian tribunal. Among the life sentences, however, all but one of the suspects was in Bahrain.
The official Bahrain News Agency said those sentenced to life include prominent Shi’ite political figures Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil al-Singace and rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Mushaima returned from self-exile in London earlier this year after Bahrain`s leaders promised to wipe away old charges of opposing the state.
Pro-reform activist Ibrahim Sharif - the only Sunni among the suspects - received five years in prison while other sentences ranged from two to 15 years. The sentences can be appealed.
Sharif`s wife, Farida Ghulam, said her husband cried out "Our people demand freedom" after the sentences were read.
Ghulam said al-Khawaja then shouted: "We will continue our struggle." His daughter, Zainab, was dragged from court by female guards after she yelled "Allahu akbar”, or "God is great”, said Ghulam.
"It`s a political verdict," said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. "All those convicted today were targeted because of their activities to bring about change and democracy in Bahrain."
The verdicts could also bring some direct diplomatic fallout. At least two of those sentenced to life also hold European passports: al-Khawaja, who is a Danish citizen, and Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, who has Swedish citizenship.
The court has presided over a series of cases linked to the protests, including issuing two death sentences against men accused of killing police officers during the demonstrations. Earlier this month, it sentenced a 20-year-old woman to a year in prison for reading poetry critical of Bahrain`s king.
Next week, a trial is scheduled to resume for more than 30 doctors and nurses accused of supporting the protests. Some of the medical personnel claim they were abused while in custody.
The Ireland-based rights group Front Line condemned the verdicts and the use of military prosecutors, saying it "underlines the determination of the government of Bahrain to secure a conviction at any cost."
Hours before the court session, the state news agency announced that the government had sent out 300 invitations to political parties and individuals for the proposed dialogue to begin July 1. The report does not name any potential participants.
"The dialogue aims at bringing together the various segments of the Bahraini society to present the people`s views and demands for further reform in the country," the report quoted Parliament Speaker Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Dhahrani, who is in charge of the talks.