MANAMA // Bahrain's appeal courts reduced the prison sentence of prominent human-rights activist Nabeel Rajab yesterday from three years to two.
The case had been widely viewed as a bellwether for the country's willingness to reform following Arab Spring-inspired unrest last year.
But the reduction disappointed Rajab's colleagues, lawyers, family and diplomatic observers in the courtroom who said that it did not go far enough.
"I made a mistake by being optimistic beforehand," said Said Yousif, who has taken acting leadership from Rajab of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. "This verdict shows the judiciary is not independent and that there is an effort to suppress human-rights defenders."
Because of Rajab's prominence, both here and abroad, his case had been watched closely. Rights activists see it as a test of the country's willingness to tolerate peaceful dissent.
At least 55 people have died in the Sunni-led kingdom since an uprising began in February last year and sporadic protests continue to dot the country's majority-Shia villages.
The ruling came at a critical time for the country's political leaders. During a visit to Bahrain at the weekend, Michale Posner, a US assistant secretary of state, urged Bahrain to try government officials responsible for human-rights abuses during the unrest.
Also at the weekend, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa called for fresh negotiations with the opposition after months of low-level intermittent contact but little progress. The calls were welcomed by the main Shia opposition bloc, Al Wefaq, which said they were ready to talk without preconditions.
Rajab's sentence relates to three charges of illegal gathering.
He has been in prison since May and in August was handed a sentence totalling three years. The judge yesterday upheld one sentence of one year but reduced two additional one-year sentences to six months each.
An independent investigation into the country's unrest last year identified the judiciary as a key area in need of reform.
In his remarks at the weekend, the crown prince also singled out the courts as in need of change.
"We must do more to improve the training and capacity of our own judges," he told a security conference in Manama on Friday.
Rajab's colleagues and lawyers said that they planned a final appeal of yesterday's ruling.
"It's a bad verdict, I'm surprised," said lawyer Mohammed Al Jishi outside the courtroom.
"We will go for an appeal in the cassation court," he said.
"This was a political decision," said Nader Rajab, the defendant's brother.
"Unless the king of Bahrain issues an order for him to be released, Nabeel Rajab will be in jail."