Bahrain sentenced 10 prominent activists to life in prison on Wednesday for plotting a coup during protests that rocked the Sunni-ruled Gulf island kingdom earlier this year. The court also sentenced other defendants among 21 suspects on trial to between two and five years in jail.
The sentencing could inflame already simmering tensions in the tiny Gulf Arab state, where small protests have erupted daily since the emergency law was lifted on 1 June and may threaten a national dialogue planned to start next month.
Among those who received life sentences were Shiite dissident Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of hardline opposition group Haq. His group joined two others in calling for the overthrow of Bahrain's monarchy during mass protests in February and March.
Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular leftist Waad party, was sentenced to five years in prison. Waad and Bahrain's largest Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq had called for a reform of the kingdom's monarchy.
The defendants were defiant after the verdict, vowing to continue "peaceful" opposition to the royal family.
Witnesses said the defendants pumped their fists in the air and shouted "peacefully" as guards dragged them away from the courtroom. Relatives shouted "Allahu Akbar", or "God is greatest."
Bahrain's state news agency previously said the 21 defendants were accused of involvement in "an attempt to overthrow the government by force in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country".
Bahrain's Sunni rulers in March crushed weeks of protests led mostly by the Shiite majority, backed by troops from neighbouring Sunni Gulf countries. The government says the protests had a sectarian agenda backed by Shi'ite power Iran.
The opposition argues the charges aim to distract Bahrain's ally the United States, which has its Navy's Fifth Fleet in the country, from activists' calls for democratic reform.