A Bahraini court has sentenced the country's leading opposition leader to four years in prison after finding him guilty of inciting disobedience and hatred in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The court acquitted Sheikh Ali Salman, a Shia cleric and the general secretary of al-Wefaq Islamic Society, of the more serious charge of seeking to overthrow the monarchy and change the political system during Tuesday's final ruling.

Salman was convicted on the specific charges of "explicit incitement against a group of the people, including disturbing the public peace and explicit incitement towards disobeying the law," according to the public prosecutor.

Salman was arrested last December after leading a protest rally against parliamentary elections in November, which his party boycotted. He denied the charges during his first court hearing in January.


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Al-Wefaq reacted to the ruling on Tuesday by rejecting the sentencing of their leader. "Today's ruling is a message not only to the opposition and Bahraini people but to the international community as well. The Bahraini regime pushes the country's crisis into further complication by sentencing [our] opposition leader to four years in jail," a spokesperson said. 

At a press conference in Manama, Salman's lawyer, Hassan Radhi, said he was not surprised at the outcome.

"If the court had listened to the defence team, the ruling would be very different, but they had violated this right during the last session," Radhi said. "We will appeal the conviction against Sheikh Ali Salman and we hope the situation in appeals court is better."

Although the trial may appear to be provocative, authorities have little choice but to hold it, since Manama is only legitimate if it applies the law. It must, consequently, allow the process to go through, and it is up to the judiciary to be impartial.

Joseph Kechichian, expert on Gulf affairs

Born in 1965 in Manama's suburb of Bilad al-Qadim, Salman led a popular petition in 1994 calling for the restoration of a parliamentary system and was arrested soon after. He was deported to Dubai a year later and moved to London, where he continued his political activism. He returned to Bahrain in March 2001 in a general amnesty as part of a set of political reforms announced by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa that year.

Al-Wefaq, established in 2002, has described Salman's detention as "a dangerous and uncalculated adventure that complicates the political and security scene in Bahrain".

They have accused the judiciary of violating both national and international requirements of a fair trial and called the trial "a setback in the human rights situation in Bahrain".

"Sheikh Ali Salman was not given the opportunity to present his plea before the judge interrupted and cut him off to adjourn the ruling to June 16… With every measure, indications of this trial to end with a politically motivated decision increase," they said in a statement.

"Although the trial may appear to be provocative, authorities have little choice but to hold it, since Manama is only legitimate if it applies the law. It must, consequently, allow the process to go through, and it is up to the judiciary to be impartial," Joseph Kechichian, an expert on Gulf affairs, told Al Jazeera.

Justin Gengler, a senior researcher at Qatar University who completed the first mass survey of political attitudes in Bahrain, said that al-Wefaq decision's to boycott the elections drew ire from the few allies it had in the country. 

"The catalyst for the arrest was, obviously, al-Wefaq's decision to boycott last year's parliamentary elections, a move that alienated what few quasi-allies the society had. For several months following the elections, the crown prince was so upset that he refused to have any contact at all with al-Wefaq or its representatives," said Gengler.

Gengler also added that once al-Wefaq had decided to boycott the November 2014 parliamentary elections, they forfeited their political rights and left Salman's speeches vulnerable to criminal investigations.

"The British embassy made clear that the group had in its view dug its own grave, and could not expect to be treated like a legitimate political actor if it continuously eschewed the legitimate institutions of politics," he added.

Mohammed al-Sayed, a spokesperson for the moderate group Citizens for Bahrain, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that while Salman may say he rejects terrorism, "a careful look at the full transcripts of key speeches by Sheikh Ali Salman shows that while he gave lip service to keeping protests peaceful, there was a consistent pattern of threats about the opposition's readiness to resort to force. How are radicalised young people expected to understand his call for them to 'return a slap with two slaps'?"


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A day before the verdict was due to be read out, Amnesty International called on Bahrain to release Salman, who they deemed "a prisoner of conscience detained solely for peacefully expressing his views".

The London-based advocacy group has accused Bahrain of carrying out rampant human rights abuses against opposition activists, despite promises of meaningful reform.

The government promptly responded by denying the allegations and said that it "will not tolerate violent attacks or incitement to violence committed under the guise of free speech and peaceful protest. It is the government's duty to protect citizens, residents, and visitors alike and the government makes no apology for doing so".

Bahrain, which bans protests and gatherings not licensed by the government, quelled a 2011 opposition uprising with help from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, but sporadic protests and small-scale clashes persist, while bomb attacks targeting policemen have increased since mid-2012.

Source: Al Jazeera