MANAMA // Bahrain sentenced 8 prominent activists and opposition leaders to life in prison on Wednesday on charges of plotting a coup during protests in the Gulf island kingdom earlier this year.
Among those who received life sentences was the Shiite dissident Hassan Mushaimaa, leader of the hardline opposition group Haq, and Abduljalil al Singace from the same party. Haq joined two other groups in calling for the overthrow of the monarchy during mass protests in February and March.
Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular leftist Waad party, was sentenced to five years in prison. Waad and Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition group Wefaq had called for reform of the monarchy.
Representatives from several European embassies as well as the United States were in the courtroom, where other defendants received prison terms ranging from two to 15 years.
The charges ranged from incitement to attempting to overthrow the government by force in collusion with "a terrorist organisation" working for a foreign country.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers crushed weeks of protests in March mostly by members of the Shiite majority. Manama says the protests had a sectarian agenda backed by Shiite power Iran.
The sentences come as Bahrain's government says it is pushing ahead with a national dialogue planned to start next month.
Opposition groups said they were surprised by the severity of the sentences before the planned talks.
"It's good no one got the death penalty but still, this will not be the right way to start dialogue. The sentences were much harsher than we expected," said a member of Bahrain's leading opposition group, Wefaq. "This is very bad."
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Members of the secular Waad party said they had been expecting Sharif, the party head, to be released.
"This was really surprising," one Waad member said. "It may affect our decision to go to dialogue but it's unclear, we still want to move forward for the country's future and there is always appeal."
Seconds after the verdict was issued, one of 21 defendants lined up in grey prison suits shouted: "We will continue our peaceful struggle." Other defendants responded by shaking their fists and shouting "peaceful, peaceful".
Police officers pulled them out of the courtroom.
Some of the defendant's family members shouted "God is great", and one woman was dragged out of the courtroom.
Bahrain says it has tried only a small number of the demonstrators, targeting those who were involved in criminal activity. The government contests the opposition's estimate that some 400 people are on trial, saying the number is far smaller.
Reuters and Associated Press