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Bahrain court sentences opposition leaders to life in prison

A Shiite cleric who was a central figure in Bahrain’s 2011 Arab Spring protests has been sentenced to life in prison on spying charges.

The ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals came after Sheikh Ali Salman was acquitted by a lower court in June.

Salman was the secretary-general Al-Wefaq political group, which was the tiny Gulf nation’s largest Shiite opposition bloc. The group was ordered dissolved in 2016 as part of a crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, which is majority Shiite but ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

The state-run Bahrain News Agency reported the court’s decision Sunday, saying three individuals were found guilty of spying charges. The other two members of the same opposition group sentenced were Sheikh Hassan Sultan and Ali Alaswad.

A public prosecutor statement said the court sentenced the defendents to life in jail for transferring confidential information and receiving financial support from Qatar.

Sultan and Alaswad were tried in absentia. Salman is already serving a four-year prison sentence for inciting hatred and insulting the interior ministry, after he was arrested in 2015.

Along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, Bahrain imposed a boycott on Qatar last year, accusing it of supporting terrorism and cosying up to Iran.

Qatar denies the charges, saying they are an attempt to undermine its sovereignty.

Since the Bahrain authorities crushed street protests in 2011, demonstrators have clashed frequently with security forces, who have been targeted by several bomb attacks. Manama says Qatar supports the unrest, accusations denied by Doha.

“This verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

“Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.”

Alaswad, who has lived in London since 2011, has told Reuters that the public prosecutor used secret witnesses and a video from a Bahraini television channel which experts described as edited and incomplete.

Courts in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, last year dissolved Al-Wefaq and National Democratic Action Society (Waad), accusing them of helping to foster violence and terrorism.

Bahrain has barred members of dissolved opposition groups from running in parliamentary elections due to be held later this month.

Al-Wefaq, which has strong links to the country’s Shiite Muslim majority, and Waad, which is seen as a secular movement, have both campaigned for social and political reforms in the country, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family.