A military court in Bahrain convicted four Shiite protesters and sentenced them to death for the killing of two policemen during anti-government demonstrations last month in the Gulf kingdom, state media said.
Three other Shiite activists, who were also on trial, were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the policemen's deaths.
The verdicts - which can be appealed - were the first related to Bahrain's uprising, which was inspired by revolts in the Arab world. The kingdom's Shiite majority has long complained of discrimination and is campaigning for greater freedoms and equal rights in the tiny Sunni-ruled island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bahrain's human rights groups blasted the verdict and said the trial, conducted in secrecy, had no legal credibility and was politically motivated.
"This verdict is a message from the government, determined to stop the democracy movement," said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "It's a warning, saying this is how we will treat you if you continue to demand your rights."
Faced with an unprecedented political unrest, Bahrain's king declared martial law and invited troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf countries to help quell Shiite dissent after weeks of street marches and bloody clashes in the kingdom's capital, Manama.
For the Sunni Arabs rulers around the Gulf, Bahrain also is seen as a critical showdown with Shiite powerhouse Iran. Arab leaders fear that any serious political gains by Bahrain's Shiites — about 70 percent of the population — could open the door for greater influence by the Islamic Republic even though there is no history of close bonds between Iran and Bahraini Shiites.
Earlier this month, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council issued a strongly worded warning to Iran to stop "meddling" in their affairs. Bahrain this week expelled an Iranian diplomat.
Iran, in turn, has called the Saudi-led force an "occupation" and said it reserves the right to take further diplomatic action against Bahrain.
The seven opposition supporters sentenced Thursday were tried behind closed doors on charges of premeditated murder of government employees. In an earlier hearing this week, Bahrain state media said the military prosecutor presented evidence that showed the defendants killed the policemen "on purpose" by running them over with a car.
Their lawyers denied the charges.
Foreign media was barred from the courtroom, but selected representatives from state-aligned media were allowed. Family members of the defendants also attended the trial.
A relative of one of the defendants sentenced to death, said there were no emotional outbursts in the courtroom when the verdicts were read.
"He was smiling when they said it, because he did not want us to cry," the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by the authorities and of jeopardizing the appeal.
The Bahrain News Agency said the defendants had "all their legal rights" during the trial for what it called "one of the most gruesome murders in Bahrain."
Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders and human rights activists have been detained since emergency rule was declared March 15. Earlier this month, the authorities banned media from covering legal proceedings in the country's military courts.
Among those detained are also dozens of Shiite professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, including a lawyer who was to defend some of the seven opposition supporters in the military court.
The attorney, Mohammed al-Tajer, is one of Bahrain's most prominent human rights lawyers. He has represented hundreds of clients against the state, including Shiite activists accused of plotting against the Sunni monarchy that has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years.
At least 30 people have died since Feb. 15, when anti-government protests erupted in Bahrain. Four opposition supporters have also died in police custody.
Bahrain rarely uses capital punishment, and when it does it is usually applied to foreigners.
The country effectively had a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty until 2006, when three Bangladeshi citizens were put to death, according to Amnesty International.
Another Bangladeshi man, Jassim Abdulmanan, was executed last July after being convicted of premeditated murder.
Executions are typically by firing squad, according to the rights group.Reuse content