Bahrain upholds sentences for dissidents accused of plotting coup
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
Thirteen people accused of plotting to overthrow the Bahraini government had their sentences upheld Tuesday in a Manama appeals court, in a case that has alarmed rights groups and drawn rebukes from Britain and Denmark.
Bahraini state media reported that the High Court of Appeal had confirmed the sentences for the 13 men, which range from five years to life in prison, and reduced the sentence for a 14th person from two years to six months behind bars. Several others who were convicted on similar charges have fled the country, according to a government statement.
The convicts still facing life sentences include Abdulhadi Khawaja, an opposition leader who launched a 110-day hunger strike earlier this year in a bid to draw more attention to the case.
The defendants were assured a fair trial, had full access to their attorneys and were given full medical care during their incarceration, the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority said Tuesday. All were given the chance to speak in their defense; some spoke for more than two hours at a time, the authority said.
The Bahraini dissidents were first convicted in military courts after an eruption of anti-government protests in the island monarchy last year. Protests against the Sunni monarchy have raged for more than a year and a half as activists demand greater democracy and more voice for Shiite Muslims.
Although the country has since taken some steps toward reform, human rights groups say abuses and repression continue. Bahrain has defended its continued actions as an attempt to stop attacks on police.
Amnesty International denounced the court decision, calling the Bahraini dissidents "prisoners of conscience" punished solely for peacefully exercising their right to protest.
That rebuke was echoed by British Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt, who said he was disappointed and concerned by reports suggesting the defendants were abused in detention when first jailed for their alleged crimes. The Danish foreign affairs minister, who has taken a particular interest in the case because Khawaja is a Danish citizen, called for their release.
The defendants can appeal their sentences to the Bahrain Supreme Court.
The case is the second recent ruling to draw international concern, following the August sentencing of prominent activist Nabeel Rajab to a three-year prison term on charges tied to illegal rallies and inciting protesters to attack police.
Human rights activists have pressed the United States, which sees Bahrain as a key ally in the region against Iran, to push more aggressively for reform in the divided nation. The State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by the sentence dealt to Rajab last month; it had yet to comment publicly Tuesday morning on the appeals ruling for the 13 dissidents.
[Updated 3:02 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5: The State Department issued a statement later Tuesday saying it was "deeply troubled by today’s developments."]
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A car passes a pro–government billboard in Muharraq, Bahrain, in 2011. The billboard includes pictures of jailed Bahraini opposition leaders whose sentences were upheld Tuesday. Credit: Hasan Jamali / Associated Press