MANAMA // Bahrain's highest appeals court today upheld prison terms for 13 prominent activists on charges of plotting to overthrow the monarchy, lawyers said, in a verdict the opposition warned would fuel unrest.
Hours after the Court of Cassation's ruling, hundreds of protesters gathered in the Shiite village of Malkiya in support of the prisoners, in response to calls for demonstrations by activists on social networking websites.
Seven of the activists have been jailed for life, including Abdulhadi Khawaja, who last year embarked on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, finally ending his fast in June after 110 days.
Two others sentenced to life are Hassan Mashaima, head of the Shiite opposition Haq movement and Abduljalil Al Singace, a member of the same group.
"We demand the release of all prisoners," chanted the protesters in Malkiya, witnesses said. "The people want to overthrow the regime."
The demonstrators hoisted a large banner bearing the pictures of the 13 defendants.
The main Shiite opposition bloc Al Wefaq condemned the ruling.
Al Wefaq considers "the verdict political and reflects the absolute absence of an independent judiciary," it said in a statement.
"The judiciary is being controlled and used by the regime in the political conflict to punish dissidents, and by this the revolution must continue," Al Wefaq said.
The bloc's head, Sheikh Ali Salman tweeted: "The judgments confirm the need for radical reform" in the government that sentences "dissenting opinion to life imprisonment."
"The revolution continues and the sentences of leaders energise it," wrote Salman on his official account on Twitter, also urging the court to drop the charges against the defendants.
"Appointed government will fall and the prisoners will get their freedom... soon," he wrote.
According to witnesses, Bahraini police were heavily deployed around the court during the hearing.
Several opposition leaders staged a protest nearby, chanting, "We demand the release of the prisoners" and "we will not forget the prisoners."
The 13 activists took part in 2011 anti-government protests and were convicted by a military tribunal on charges that included "setting up terror groups to topple the regime".
The defendants were retried in a civil court.
Seven other activists sentenced in absentia to various jail terms on the same charges remain at large.
In September, a lower appeals court upheld life sentences for seven of the activists, all Shiites, including Khawaja, Mashaima and Singace, and jail terms ranging from five to 15 years for the others.
In November, Amnesty International urged Bahrain to release the 13 jailed activists, saying doing so would prove the Gulf monarchy is "genuinely committed" to reform and the respect of human rights.
The rights watchdog had called them "prisoners of conscience" who should be freed immediately.
Since February 2011, Bahrain has been shaken by opposition protests that the authorities say are being fuelled by Shiite Iran across the Gulf.