DUBAI A Bahraini court on Monday rejected a request by a prominent human rights activist that he be freed after serving three quarters of a prison term for taking part in unlicensed protests.
Bahrain, where the Sunni Al Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi'ite population, has been in political turmoil since Shi'ite-led pro-democracy protests erupted in 2011.
The kingdom is a base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which patrols oil shipping lanes in the Gulf region.
Lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi said leading rights activist Nabeel Rajab, sentenced last year to two years in prison for cases related to organizing and participating in protests, had a legal right to an early release after spending a year and half in prison.
"But the court rejected the request to release him without giving any reasons," Jishi told Reuters by telephone from Manama after the ruling, which was attended by representatives of several foreign embassies.
An official of the government's Information Affairs Authority confirmed the court had rejected his request.
Rajab shot to prominence in 2011 when he became a leading campaigner against a crackdown on protesters. With 217,000 followers on Twitter he is one of the most well-known online activists in the Arab world.
A hero to protesters but villain for those Bahrainis who fear they will bring Shi'ite Islamists to power, Rajab is the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, a non-government body that says it promotes human rights in the Gulf Arab island kingdom.
He led and organized many protests against the wide powers of the ruling Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa dynasty.
Last year, in a separate case, he was sentenced to three months in jail over a tweet criticizing the veteran prime minister, the king's uncle. The ruling was overturned, but only after Rajab had already served his sentence.
Amnesty International and Human Rights First have called for Rajab's release.
"It's depressing but no big surprise that Nabeel Rajab was not released. Recent weeks have seen an increased targeting of human rights defenders by the authorities and freeing him would have gone against that trend," said Brian Dooley, Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First.
Bahrain has been locked in a regional rivalry for influence between Shi'ite power Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain quelled the February 2011 revolt but protests and clashes have persisted and talks between government and opposition have failed to end the political standoff.
Many Shi'ites complain of political and economic marginalization, a charge the government denies.
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal, Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)