SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)Prominent Bahraini opposition activist Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to three years in jail on Thursday for anti-government protests, his lawyer said, a verdict likely to undermine a U.S. call for dialogue to defuse political tension on the island.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally and base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests led by its Shi'ite Muslim majority erupted last year after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Rajab is the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and has led many protests against the wide powers of the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty which rules the island kingdom.
A hero to protesters, but villain for Bahrainis who fear the protests will bring Shi'ite Islamists to power, Rajab is already serving three months in jail over a tweet criticizing the veteran prime minister. A court said it insulted Bahrainis.
The judge ruled in three cases on Thursday, all related to participating in peaceful protests, and handed down a one-year jail sentence in each, Rajab's lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi said, adding that he plans to appeal the ruling.
"It is a very stiff and unexpected ruling, I am surprised. They are peaceful protests, not violent ones," Jishi said.
Others found guilty in similar cases, he said, were sentenced to a maximum of six months in jail and some were freed on bail.
Rights groups sharply criticized the sentence.
"This is a shocking verdict, even by Bahrain's own abysmal standards on human rights. The regime can't be seen serious about human rights reform when it jails one of the world's most prominent activists to prison for three years," said Brian Dooley of U.S.-based Human Rights First.
There has been little progress towards opposition demands for reforms including a parliament with full powers to legislate and form governments. Many Shi'ites complain of political and economic marginalization, a charge the government denies.
Bahrain has increased parliament's powers of scrutiny over ministers and says it is reforming policing to conform with international rights standards. It accuses protesters of rioting and wounding police.
While uprisings ended with long-standing governments overthrown in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, Bahrain imposed martial law to try to crush the protests there last year.
Washington has urged Manama to hold a dialogue with the opposition to end the unrest and hold officials accountable for rights violations uncovered in an investigation led by international legal experts published in November.
But the United States values close ties with the ruling family, which allows Washington to run its Fifth Fleet operations out of Manama.
The fleet plays a key role in ensuring the free flow of oil in the Gulf while Tehran has threatened to stop shipping in vital shipping lanes nearby if the United States steps up pressure over Iran's disputed nuclear program.
On Tuesday, a court delayed until September 4 a ruling in the retrial of 20 men convicted of leading the uprising, and since June the government has banned a series of protest rallies planned by leading opposition party Wefaq.
AP : Reported
A prominent Bahraini human rights activist was found guilty Thursday of instigating and participating in several illegal gatherings and sentenced to three years in jail.
The unexpectedly stiff sentence against Nabeel Rajab will raise questions about the Western-backed
The unexpectedly stiff sentence against Nabeel Rajab will raise questions about the Western-backed Sunni monarchy's commitment to reform, and embolden anti-government protesters who have been demonstrating the past 18 months for greater rights in the Gulf island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet.
Rajab, who is already serving a three-month sentence for posting anti-government comments on Twitter, was in court for the verdict. He is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Rajab's attorney Mohammed al-Jishi said each of three cases yielded a year imprisonment, for a total of three years. Al-Jishi said he plans to appeal the ruling.
In a separate case involving comments made on social media site Twitter, a judge delayed issuing a verdict against Rajab's appeal until Aug. 23.
Bahrain has experienced near daily protests since February 2011 following an uprising by the kingdom's Shiite majority seeking greater political rights from the Western-backed Sunni monarchy. At least 50 people have died in the unrest and hundreds have been detained, including prominent rights activists and Shiite opposition leaders.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority. The country's leaders have offered some reforms including restoring jobs for many Shiites pushed out from their posts at the start of the uprising and giving parliament more power.
But the opposition says they fall short of Shiite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.
The unrest has put Washington into an awkward position. U.S. officials have called for efforts to reopen political dialogue in Bahrain, but are careful not to press too hard against the nation's leadership and possibly jeopardize its important military ties.
Rights groups criticized the ruling against Rajab and said it raises questions over whether the regime is serious about reforms. They have called for his immediate release.
"It seems Bahrain's rulers are far more comfortable with harsh repression than with the reforms King Hamad keeps promising," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "The government has yet to show that Nabeel Rajab did any more than exercise his right to free expression and peaceful assembly. He should be set free, not sent away from his family to prison."