A court yesterday upheld jail sentences against 20 opposition figures convicted of plotting to overthrow Bahrain's Western-allied government, including eight prominent activists facing life in prison.
The decision is likely to deepen the 19-month crisis between Bahrain's Sunni rulers and Shia-led protesters demanding a greater political voice.
Among the eight sentenced to life is rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who staged a 110-day hunger strike earlier this year. The other 12 received prison terms ranging from five to 15 years, with seven of them convicted in their absence.
The decision could escalate street clashes that have occurred nearly nonstop since the Arab Spring-inspired uprising began in February 2011. More than 50 people have been killed in the unrest.
"We totally reject today's verdict, which is clearly not a step toward beginning to solve the issues in Bahrain," said former parliament member Abdul Jalil Khalil, one of the country's main Shia political bloc, Al Wefaq.
Shias represent about 70 per cent of Bahrain's more than 500,000 citizens, but complain they face systematic discrimination, such as being excluded from top government and security posts. Bahrain's Sunni rulers have set in motion a series of reforms, including giving more powers to the elected parliament, but opposition leaders say the measures don't go far enough to break the ruling family's near monopoly over government control.
The anti-state convictions against the 20 opposition figures were first handed down last year by a military-led tribunal created under temporary martial law-style rules. A retrial was granted, but only limited changes in some charges were made in the hearings, said Jalil al-Aradi, one of the defence lawyers.
The defendants did not appear in court, and family members were barred under tight security. The activists have previously claimed they suffered beatings and other abuses behind bars.
Mr Al-Khawaja, pictured, also has Danish citizenship, and has been the focus of efforts by Denmark to secure his release. Its Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal said the life sentence was "very disappointing" and said he would discuss possible further international action from "the very broad range of countries that in the spring supported Denmark in the demand for the release of al-Khawaja and the other human rights and democracy fighters in Bahrain".