Police and protesters have clashed in Bahrain after eight Shia Muslim activists accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the Gulf Arab state’s Sunni monarchy were sentenced to life in prison.
The court also sentenced on Wednesday other defendants – from among the 21 suspects on trial – to between two and 15 years in jail.
Saeed al-Shehabi, the only defendant to be sentenced in absentia, told Al Jazeera that the charges were false and called the government’s response “draconian”.
“The world has seen how peaceful the demonstrations were, for a month-long period … yet, they were condemned as being terrorists,” he said.
A member of Bahrain’s largest Shia group said the sentencing of the activists as contradicting the government’s calls for dialogue.
“Is this the atmosphere for dialogue?” asked Khalil Marzooq, a former MP and member of the Islamic National Accord Association (Wefaq), in excerpts of a speech he gave in Manama posted on his Facebook page.
The Bahrain News Agency said the life sentences were issued against a prominent Shia political leader, Hassan Mushaima; activists Abdulhady al-Khawaja, Abduljalil al-Singace; and five others.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the country’s most prominent Shia opposition group, told Al Jazeera that many people were unhappy about the sentences.
“Abdulhady al-Khawaja is one of the most respected human-rights activist in the whole Arab region, so people are very angry,” Rajab said.
“Hundreds of people have been brought up for charges in the past few days, and hundreds more are waiting to be tried.”
Maryam al-Khawaja, another member of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said that Abdulhady al-Khawaja’s daughter, Zainab, was present in court when he was sentenced and stood up and chanted “Allahu Akbar” [God is Greater].
She was violently removed from court and arrested. She was later released after being charged with contempt of court and made to sign a pledge.
Al-Singace, who was released in February after six months in jail, was also sentenced to life.
Nine of the defendants had been in custody on similar charges in the past before being set free under a royal pardon in February aimed at calming protests in Bahrain.
Following the pardon, Mushaima returned to the kingdom from self-imposed exile in the UK.
Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular leftist group Waad, was sentenced to five years. Waad had joined Wefaq in calling for political reforms.
Said Abdulnabi Shihab was also sentenced to life in absentia. Six other defendants who are abroad and being tried in absentia were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Authorities claimed the activists had sought to overthrow Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy and had links to “a terrorist organisation abroad”.
Several villages had demonstrated on Tuesday night in solidarity with the opposition leaders facing charges.
Residents and activists said small protests broke out in some areas to chants of “Down, down [King] Hamad”, as police cars rushed to block the roads to the villages.
The government contests the opposition’s estimate that some 400 people are on trial, saying the number is far smaller.
Some activists sent telephone text messages calling on followers to protest again on Wednesday to demand the release of the defendants and rejection of the government’s dialogue offer.
Four people have been sentenced to death and three others to life in prison over the killing of two policemen. Nine others were jailed for 20 years after being convicted of abducting a policeman.
Authorities have said 24 people were killed during the month-long unrest, most of them demonstrators.
Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, invited Saudi and other Gulf troops in mid-March to help crush pro-democracy protests.