This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
Bahrain sentenced a prominent human rights activist to three years in prison Thursday, saying he had organized and taken part in illegal rallies and incited protesters to attack police.
Nabeel Rajab "had called in public speeches for a demonstration to confront public security personnel, inciting violence and escalation against law enforcement officers, resulting in deaths during those confrontations," prosecutor Mohamed Hazza told the official Bahrain News Agency. The activist had already been serving a three-month sentence for criticizing the government on Twitter.
Human rights groups slammed the new sentence, saying Rajab had been convicted solely for exercising his rights. Amnesty International called it "a dark day for justice in Bahrain" that threw into question whether Bahrain was committed to the reforms it has claimed.
"The international community can no longer be under the illusion that Bahrain is on the path of reform when such blatant ruthless tactics are being used to suppress dissenting voices," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International, calling for Rajab to be released immediately.
Bahrain has been in the grip of protests against its Sunni Muslim monarchy for a year and a half, as demonstrators demand greater democracy and more voice for Shiite Muslims.
Rajab, a well-known activist who was among dozens of Shiites accused of plotting a coup nearly two years ago, has complained of repeated harassment and attacks, including a reported beating by security forces in January.
The island nation pledged to institute reforms after an independent commission condemned police abuses during a crackdown on protests, recently charging 15 police officers for abusing medics. At the same time, the government has defended some of its actions as necessary to quell violent protesters who have been caught on video hurling Molotov cocktails at police.
But dissidents say the country has not gone far enough and abuses continue. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which Rajab heads, argued that the United States had failed to exert pressure on Bahrain to follow through on its promises, making it more willing to escalate attacks on activists.
The U.S., a longtime ally of Bahrain, resumed some weapons sales to the country this year, though many arms used for "crowd control" are still off limits. When asked at a congressional hearing whether the U.S. had called to release Rajab, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said the case was "a bit more complicated on its facts" than other cases it pushed Bahrain not to pursue. [Updated 2:29 pm Thursday, Aug. 16: The State Department said in a press briefing Thursday that it was "deeply troubled" by the sentence in "an inappropriate case to begin with."]
Rajab plans to appeal the ruling, his attorney told the Associated Press.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab speaks at his home in the village of Bani Jamrah, west of Manama, on June 27. Credit: Mohammed al Shaikh / AFP/Getty Images