May 30, 9:38 AM EDT

Bahrain court more than doubles opposition leader's sentence


AP Photo
AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- A Bahraini appeals court on Monday more than doubled the prison term for the country's top Shiite opposition figure in a ruling that his political bloc blasted as "unacceptable and provocative."

Sheikh Ali Salman now faces nine years behind bars, up from an earlier four, following his conviction last year on charges that included incitement and insulting the Interior Ministry.

Salman is the secretary-general of Al-Wefaq, the country's largest Shiite political group. He was a key figure in Bahrain's 2011 Arab Spring-inspired uprising, which was dominated by the island nation's Shiite majority and sought greater political rights from the Sunni monarchy.

Authorities crushed the initial uprising in a matter of weeks with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Localized protests continue in Shiite communities, with young activists frequently clashing with police.

Occasional small bomb attacks have killed police officers in the country, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The case against Salman relates to speeches he gave between 2012 and 2014, though Al-Wefaq has said his words were taken out of context. He was convicted and sentenced by a lower court in June.

Both sides appealed that verdict, with the court ruling Monday in favor of the prosecution while rejecting Salman's appeal, according to a statement carried by the official Bahrain News Agency.

Salman was sentenced to seven years in prison on three charges that included "promoting forceful change of the political regime" and inciting disobedience. A two-year sentence related to the comments against the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police forces, was also upheld, according to BNA.

Witnesses reported heavy security outside the courthouse ahead of Monday's ruling.

Salman's lawyer, Jalila al-Sayed, expressed disappointment with the decision. Her client only sought to exercise his right to free expression and call for "peaceful means to achieve Bahraini people's goals to implement a true constitutional monarchy and political, social and economic reforms," she said.

She will consult with her client before deciding to challenge the ruling in the Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeal.

Al-Wefaq said Monday's decision "indicates the regime's insistence to ignore the calls for a solution to the crisis and entrenches the exacerbating political crisis in Bahrain."

Al-Wefaq boycotted parliamentary elections in 2014, saying it wants greater power-sharing between elected lawmakers and the monarchy, the release of political prisoners and a prime minister chosen by elected officials. The current prime minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, is an uncle of the king and has held power for more than four decades.

Several prominent opposition figures and human-rights activists remain behind bars, including the former secretary-general of the secular National Democratic Action Society, Ibrahim Sharif, and father and daughter activists Abdulhadi and Zainab al-Khawaja.

The government accuses opposition groups of rejecting repeated offers to hold a national dialogue.

Brian Dooley, an activist at the Washington-based group Human Rights First, called Monday's decision dangerous and said it shows Bahrain's ruling family has no interested in dialogue or power-sharing.

"Keeping the leader of the main opposition group in jail does nothing to end Bahrain's political crisis and everything to stoke further instability in the kingdom," he said.

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