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Bahrain activist verdicts send tough message on protest

An appeals court in Bahrain upheld life sentences for eight of 20 activists who helped drive last year's reform protests. Talks have started with some opposition groups, but expectations are low.

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Masked anti-government protesters burn tires on the main street of the western village of Malkiya, Bahrain, Sept. 4, responding to court rulings earlier in the day. A Bahrain court 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.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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A Bahrain appeals court Tuesday upheld eight life sentences and other sentences ranging from five to 15 years against 20 political and rights activists central to last year’s pro-reform protest movement.

The verdict in the case, which had become a symbol of the government’s crackdown on the opposition, sends a signal that government concessions are unlikely even as officials begin low-level talks with some opposition groups.  

“It’s a message to the international community, before the people of Bahrain, that this regime is not going to change its attitude,” said Khalil Marzouk, a leader in the Al Wefaq political society, the largest opposition group.

The activists, seven of whom were convicted in absentia and 13 of whom are in prison in Bahrain, were convicted by a military court of charges including violating the Constitution, conspiracy to overthrow the government, and espionage. They were arrested as authorities sought to crush a protest movement that began in February 2011 calling for democratic reform.

Some of the convicted are prominent human rights activists, like Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, who was sentenced to life in prison. Others, like Ebrahim Sharif, sentenced to five years, are leaders of opposition political movements. In a speech last year, President Obama implicitly called for their release. “You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” he said. 

Bahrain, a tiny island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, hosts the US Fifth Fleet, a bulwark against Iran’s influence in the region. The US has been reluctant to strongly criticize its ally even as security forces killed and tortured protesters and the government failed to enact reforms that would bring a political solution to the crisis. Protests continue, and the sectarian divide has grown increasingly bitter. The protest movement is mostly made up of members of Bahrain’s majority Shiite population, while the monarchs are Sunni.

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