A Bahrain court on Thursday sentenced prominent Shi’ite rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in prison over unauthorized protests against the Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy, a lawyer said.
“It is a very stiff and unexpected ruling, I am surprised. They are peaceful protests, not violent ones,” the activist’s lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi told Reuters news agency.
Others found guilty in similar cases, he said, were sentenced to a maximum of six months in jail and some were freed on bail. Jishi said that the defense team would appeal.
Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has been in custody since June 6 on charges of insulting members of the Sunni community via Twitter, only days after he had been released on bail on after a month behind bars over other charges including protests.
Rajab led anti-government protests following a crackdown on Shi’ite-led demonstrations against the regime in March 2011.
The activist has insisted on demonstrating inside Manama, unlike the main Shi’ite opposition, which now stages protests in villages, after last year's clampdown on protesters who occupied the capital's Pearl Square for a month.
Since February last year, at least 50 people have died and hundreds have been detained, including prominent rights activists and Shi’ite opposition leaders. Sporadic demonstrations in Shi’ite villages have intensified since last year's crackdown, which ended month-long protests in the capital Manama.
The court also adjourned to August 23 the appeal hearing Thursday in the case of Rajab's alleged insults to residents of the mostly-Sunni Muharaq province, over which has been sentenced to three months in jail, the lawyer said.
The avid tweeter is also accused of insulting the security forces in postings that he admitted came from his account own on the microblogging website.
Rights groups criticized the ruling against Rajab and said it raises questions over whether the regime is serious about reforms. They have called for his immediate release.
“The government has yet to show that Nabeel Rajab did any more than exercise his right to free expression and peaceful assembly. He should be set free, not sent away from his family to prison,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights also swiftly condemned the sentences against Rajab, who serves as FIDH deputy secretary general, and called for his immediate release.
“Arbitrarily imprisoning human rights defenders will not stop the people from aspiring to freedom and democratic change,” said FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen.
Bahrain has come under strong criticism from international rights organizations over last year's crackdown on demonstrations that were inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.