Life-term verdicts could escalate clashes

A Bahrain court on Tuesday upheld jail sentences against 20 opposition figures convicted of plotting to overthrow the Western-allied government, including eight prominent activists facing life in prison.

The decision is likely to deepen the nearly 19-month-long crisis between Bahrain’s Sunni rulers and Shia-led protesters demanding a greater political voice in the strategic Gulf kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

The group on trial includes some of the most high-profile leaders.

Among the eight sentenced to life is rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who staged a 110-day hunger strike earlier this year in protest.

The other 12 have lesser prison terms, ranging from five to 15 years, with seven of them convicted in absentia.

The decision could also escalate street clashes that have occurred nearly nonstop since the Arab Spring-inspired uprising began in February 2011.

More than 50 people have been killed in Bahrain’s unrest.

“We totally reject today’s verdict, which is clearly not a step toward beginning to solve the issues in Bahrain,” said former Parliament member Abdul Jalil Khalil, a member of the country’s main Shia political bloc, Al Wefaq.

Shias represent about 70 per cent of Bahrain’s more than 500,000 citizens, but complain they face systematic discrimination, such as being excluded from top government and security posts.

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