Manama: Bahrain sentenced eight prominent Shi`ite Muslim activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on Wednesday on charges of plotting a coup during protests in the Gulf island kingdom earlier this year.
The sentencing could inflame tension in the Gulf Arab state where demonstrators have mounted scattered daily protests since emergency law was lifted on June 1. It may also undermine the basis for a national dialogue planned to start next month.
Seconds after the verdict was issued, one of 21 defendants lined up in grey prison suits shouted: "We will continue our peaceful struggle." Other defendants responded by shaking their fists and shouting "peaceful, peaceful."
Police officers hustled them out of the courtroom.
Relatives of some of the defendants shouted "God is great," and one woman was dragged out of the chamber.
Among those who received life sentences was Shi`ite dissident Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the hardline opposition group Haq, and Abduljalil al-Singace, from the same party. Haq joined two other groups in calling for the overthrow of the monarchy during mass protests in February and March.
Abdel Wahab Hussain, head of Wafa, another group that called for a republic, was also given a life sentence. Ibrahim Sharif, Sunni Muslim leader of the secular leftist Waad party, received five years in prison. Waad and Bahrain`s largest Shi`ite opposition group Wefaq had called for reform of the monarchy.
Small protests broke out in some Shi`ite villages after the verdicts, residents said, but were quashed by police using tear gas and sound grenades. Activists vowed more rallies in the evening.
Representatives from several European embassies as well as the United States were in the courtroom, where other defendants received prison terms ranging from 2 to 15 years.
The charges ranged from incitement to attempting to overthrow the government by force in collusion with "a terrorist organization" working for a foreign country.
Bahrain`s Sunni rulers, backed by forces from neighboring Sunni Gulf Arab states, crushed weeks of protests in March mostly by members of the Shi`ite majority. Manama says the protests had a sectarian agenda backed by Shi`ite power Iran.
The opposition denies being steered by Iran, and argues that the charges aim to distract Bahrain`s ally the United States, which has its Navy`s Fifth Fleet in the country, from activists` calls for democratic reform.
DIALOGUE IN QUESTION
Wefaq, in a news conference after the verdicts, said it was concerned about the success of dialogue under current conditions, and left open the possibility of not attending the talks at all.
Spokesman Khalil al-Marzouq said Wefaq would not meet the government`s Thursday deadline for responding to the invitation to dialogue, and could not say if Wefaq would ultimately attend.
"These sentences do not fit with an atmosphere of dialogue ... Those people are a critical portion of the movement. How can there be a dialogue while they are in prison?"
Marzouq also argued that political reforms would be diluted by the sheer number of representatives, 250, invited to talks, not all of them from political groups. He complained that the opposition would be a minority.
The government has said that all political groups should be represented equally at talks.
Some observers have suggested King Hamad bin Isa may try to cool tensions before the dialogue by granting a general amnesty to many of those jailed in recent trials. Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Members of the secular Waad party said they had been expecting Sharif, the party head, to be released.
"This was really surprising," one Waad member said. "It may affect our decision to go to dialogue but it`s unclear, we still want to move forward to the future and there is always appeal."
The Danish-Bahraini citizen Abdulhady al-Khawaja, a rights activist, also received a life sentence.
"People will be angry, they will go to the streets because all of these were unfair trials," a relative of Khawaja said.
Bahrain says it has tried only a small number of the demonstrators, targeting those who were involved in criminal activity.
The government contests the opposition`s estimate that some 400 people are on trial, saying the number is far smaller.