CAIRO — Bahrain sentenced eight activists to life in prison Wednesday in the latest crackdown on a 5-month-old rebellion by the island monarchy, which has been criticized by international human-rights groups for mass arrests, torture and shooting protesters.
The verdicts follow the lifting of martial law but indicate the ruling Sunni-Muslim family will not tolerate unrest among a majority Shiite population demanding an end to discrimination. Several of the activists, such as Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, are respected dissidents, and their sentences are likely to spur fresh protests.
The sentences came a week before Bahraini government officials were expected to meet with Shiite leaders at the urging of the U.S. to end abuses against protesters who were inspired by revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The U.S. 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, and activists have criticized Washington for not pressuring King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa to stem the repression, which has resulted in the deaths of at least 32 people and led to hundreds of arrests since February.
Those sentenced to life in prison by a military court also included activist Abdul Jalil Singace and Hassan Mushaima, a prominent Shiite political leader who, like many Bahrainis, returned home from self-exile after assurances by the royal family that activists would not be persecuted. They were charged with plotting to overthrow the monarchy.
Thirteen other dissidents were sentenced to jail terms of from two to 15 years.
"When the sentence was read out, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja spoke loudly and said the people will continue in their struggle for their rights," read a statement posted by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "He was beaten and removed from court, his family fears for his health as he was already suffering from the fractures in his face."
His daughter Zainab, who was present in court, stood up and chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) and she was "violently removed" from court. The rights group reported later that Zainab was charged with contempt of court and released.
The king told supporters on Wednesday: "Crises doesn't scare us."
Bahrain has accused protesters of being agents of foreign powers, especially Iran. The royal family quickly turned the demonstrations into a proxy struggle in the Persian Gulf between Bahrain and its ally Saudi Arabia against Shiite-led Iran. Saudi Arabia, which also fears pro-democracy movements are upsetting the region's balance of power, sent troops into Bahrain to help quell the revolt.
President Obama met this month with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa, who is more moderate than the king, to press for a national dialogue. But Wednesday's prison sentences and upcoming trials against doctors and nurses who aided wounded protesters are not likely to calm passions.
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