Bahrain jails 50 for ties to anti-government group: activists

DUBAI (Reuters) - A Bahraini court sentenced 50 people on Sunday to between five and 15 years in jail for setting up a group that organizes anti-government protests, and that authorities say is working to topple the government by force, activists said.

Bahrain has seen almost daily protests by members of the Shi’ite majority since February 2011, when it crushed a Shi’ite-led uprising demanding that the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty give up power.

Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long complained of entrenched discrimination in areas such as employment and public services, allegations that the Sunni-led government denies.

The activists said the government had accused those convicted on Sunday of membership of the February 14 movement, which has been organizing protests against the government since 2011.

Bahrain’s head of public prosecution had described the group as a terrorist organization.

Asked for comment, an official said a government statement on the matter was being prepared.

Yousif al-Muhafda from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said that “a group of February 14 activists were sentenced to between five and 15 years in jail”.

The center said there were human rights campaigners among those convicted “under the internationally criticized and vague terrorism law”, and that the sentences added up to more than 400 years in jail.

“This was a sham trial with a political verdict, they should be released immediately,” the group’s acting president, Maryam Al-Khawaja, said in a statement.

Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, which describes itself as a local rights group, said a member of the society’s board had been given a 15-year sentence.

Some of the suspects were convicted in absentia.

The persistent unrest has placed Bahrain on the front line of a struggle for regional influence between Sunni Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s close ally, and Shi’ite Iran, which denies Bahraini accusations of fomenting Shi’ite protests.

The Gulf kingdom is a U.S. ally in a volatile region and has long provided a base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet; but at the same time it faces criticism over its record on human rights that the United States champions.

Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Kevin Liffey