A court in Bahrain Tuesday jailed prominent Shiite opposition leader Ali Salman, whose arrest drew US and Iranian condemnation and sparked protests across the tiny but strategic Gulf kingdom.
Salman was sentenced to four years for inciting disobedience and hatred in the Sunni Muslim-ruled state, a judicial source said.
But he was acquitted of the more serious charge of seeking to overthrow the monarchy and change the political system.
Salman, 49, was also found guilty of “insulting an official body”, the source said, referring to the interior ministry.
His arrest on December 28 drew condemnation from both the United States and Iran, as well as human rights groups.
It also triggered demonstrations across the kingdom.
Salman was present for the verdict, which was delivered amid tight security at the Manama court, witnesses said.
He heads the Al-Wefaq Shiite political association, which once held the most seats in parliament.
Its 18 MPs walked out in February 2011 in protest at violence used against demonstrators during nationwide pro-democracy protests.
The group boycotted the last election, held in November.
Al-Wefaq denounced the “false” ruling against Salman and demanded his release.
“We reject anything less than a non-guilty verdict for Sheikh Ali Salman. We consider this a false and injust ruling that is based on an illogical case and lacks sound foundations,” a statement said.
Keeping Salman behind bars means “jeopardising any solution and perpetuating the political crisis”, the statement added.
It criticised the verdict as an “irresponsible decision that reflects the regime’s rejection of any political solution or serious dialogue”.
Rights groups also criticised Tuesday’s ruling.
– ‘Deeper into political crisis’ –
“Today’s verdict against Ali Salman drives Bahrain deeper into political crisis,” said Brian Dooley, head of the Human Rights Defenders Programme at the Washington-based Human Rights First.
“Sending the leader of the main opposition group to jail for peaceful protests only encourages those pushing for violent change, and it sweeps any chance of a negotiated settlement off the table,” he said.
Amnesty International said the verdict “again demonstrated the Bahraini authorities’ disregard for the right to freedom of expression”, demanding that Salman be freed immediately and his conviction quashed.
Said Boumedouha, the London-based group’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said the “shocking” verdict was “yet another clear example of Bahrainâs flagrant disregard for its international obligations… Salman has been sentenced solely for peacefully expressing his opinion.”
Tiny but strategic Bahrain, which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been rocked by unrest since a 2011 Shiite-led uprising demanding a constitutional monarchy and more representative government.
Bahrain’s opposition accuses the authorities of systematically naturalising Sunni Arabs and Asians in a bid to tip the demographic balance on the majority-Shiite Gulf island.
The prosecution said Salman was convicted of “public incitement” against naturalised Bahraini citizens and had accused them of being disloyal to the country.
Despite a widespread crackdown, protesters continue to clash frequently with security forces in Shiite villages outside Manama.
At least 89 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since 2011, while hundreds have been arrested and put on trial, rights groups say.
Last week, a court handed down sentences of up to life imprisonment against 57 Shiites accused of plotting attacks against police and other targets.
All but one were stripped of their citizenship. Only 33 of them are in custody, while the rest were tried in absentia.