MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain released one of the Arab world's best-known activists on Saturday after he served a two-year jail sentence for his role in protests calling for democracy in the U.S.-allied kingdom.
Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was found guilty in August 2012 of organizing and participating in illegal protests to push for reforms in the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom.
Speaking after his release, Rajab said he had been shocked at how the situation in Bahrain had worsened during his time in prison. Authorities had been targeting activists and human rights advocates, he said.
"There must be a genuine dialogue between the ruling family and the representatives of the people, and their Bahrani opposition," he told Reuters at his house, where hundreds had gathered to celebrate his release.
"I will continue to struggle for democracy and for respect for human rights," he said.
Bahrain, a base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since protests led by Shi'ite Muslims erupted in 2011 after similar uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Talks between the government and opposition have failed to end the political standoff. Many Shi'ites complain of political and economic discrimination, a charge the authorities deny.
Earlier on Saturday protesters and police clashed at a funeral, the Interior Ministry said. It said protestors threw Molotov cocktails at police who responded with tear gas.
There were no details of any casualties at the ceremony, which was being held for a man who died from shotgun pellet wounds sustained during clashes with police two months earlier. He was the first person to be killed in such circumstances since February 2013.
Rajab rose to prominence after campaigning against a crackdown on demonstrations. Protesters cast him as a hero but other Bahrainis see him as a threat, fearing that protesters want to bring Shi'ite Islamists to power in the Gulf Arab state.
London-based Amnesty International and U.S.-based Human Rights First had called for him to be freed. He appealed to be released last year after serving three-quarters of his sentence, but the court rejected his request.
Rajab was sentenced to three months in jail last year in a separate case over a tweet criticizing the prime minister, the king's uncle. The ruling was overturned, but only after Rajab had already served his sentence.
"Nabeel's release will be a major test for Bahrain, where most leading human rights defenders are in prison, in exile, or facing charges for their work," Washington-based Human Rights First said in a statement before his release.
Bahrain, which effectively bans protests and gatherings not licensed by the government, has been caught up in a struggle for influence between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
It quelled the 2011 revolt with help from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf states, but protests and small-scale clashes persist and bomb attacks have increased since mid-2012.
Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Lisa Shumaker