Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition group slammed the jailing for life of eight activists, saying the harsh punishment will do nothing to ease the political crisis in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
The Islamic National Accord Association (Al-Wefaq) has "received these sentences with shock, especially as they contradict the call for national dialogue" proposed by King Hamad and set to begin on 1 July, the group said in a statement received by AFP on Thursday.
The life sentences "will overshadow the stability in the country as they will also make the political crisis remain for life as well," the Al-Wefaq statement said.
The National Safety Court of first instance on Wednesday sentenced eight Shiite opposition activists to life in prison for "plotting to overthrow" the kingdom's rulers, the official Bahrain News Agency said.
It also jailed 13 other activists for two to 15 years on similar charges.
The judgement drew an expression of concern from Washington, which stations its Fifth Fleet in the small but strategic Gulf archipelago.
The kingdom said in an English-language statement by the Information Affairs Authority late on Wednesday that the "sentencing sends a message that law and order will be preserved."
This will reassure "the majority of the population of Bahrain that their security will not be allowed to be compromised by violence or attempts to overthrow the regime or by the calling for the establishment of an Islamic republic," it added.
The Gulf kingdom's government reiterated its calls for national dialogue.
"Those who attend the dialogue will show leadership and distance themselves from the radical elements and therefore prove to the international community that the majority believes in this inclusive forum to pave a better future," it said.
The defendants "do not represent any significant number of the population who actually believe that the way forward is through dialogue and peaceful means," it added.
Khalil Marzooq, a member of Al-Wefaq has slammed the sentences as contradictory to the king's calls for dialogue.
"There are political forces, some of whom have received harsh sentences today, which have not been invited for dialogue," said Marzooq in excerpts of a speech he gave at a press conference in Manama posted on Al-Wefaq's Facebook page. "How will there be a dialogue without those figures?"
US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said: "We are concerned about the severity of the sentences handed down... in Bahrain. We're also concerned about the use of military courts to try these civilians."
"Such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens," he told reporters.
But Bahrain's government said "the nature of recent incidents and the threat to national security makes the Law of National Safety a legitimate means to prosecute the perpetrators in a court, where they had access to legal counsel and representation, for bringing the country to the brink of total anarchy."
Scores more activists are facing trial on charges linked to the protests that rocked the kingdom for a month from mid-February, in the semi-martial court set up under a "state of national safety" decreed by King Hamad.
Bahrain's interior ministry said 24 people, including four policemen, were killed in the unrest. The opposition said scores were arrested, amid widespread allegations of torture, while hundreds were dismissed from their jobs.
Four people have been sentenced to death and three others to life in prison over the killing of two policemen during the protests. Nine others were jailed for 20 years after being convicted of abducting a policeman.