A Bahraini court sentenced at least eight Shiite activists and opposition leaders to life in prison Wednesday and issued stiff terms for 13 others in the latest blow by authorities waging a crackdown against protesters seeking greater rights in the Gulf kingdom.
The men were accused of plotting to overthrow the country's monarchy during mass demonstrations earlier this year. Fourteen of the 21 convicted are in custody while the rest were sentenced in absentia.
Shiite crowds blocked roads with sand piles and called for marches following the court's decision. Political activists and relatives of the defendants expressed surprise and anger at the severity of the sentences at a time when Bahrain's Sunni monarchy hopes to hold a dialogue next month about the country's future. Many said the verdicts could spark more mass protests like the ones that shook the Gulf nation in February and March and pitted the Shia majority against the ruling Sunni monarchy.
A member of the leading Shiite opposition party Wefaq said, "It's good no one got the death penalty" but added that this is not "the right way to start a dialogue."
Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, has already seen months of lockdown-level security by military and police units. The protests — inspired by the wider Arab uprisings — have claimed at least 31 lives and put U.S. officials in the difficult position of both denouncing the violence but standing by the rulers in a key military ally.
The Shiite activists were charged with trying to overthrow Bahrain's 200-year-old monarchy and of having links to "a terrorist organization abroad."
The official Bahrain News Agency said those sentenced to life include prominent Shiite political figures Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil al-Singace. Mushaima returned from self-exile in London earlier this year after Bahrain's leaders promised to wipe away old charges of opposing the state.
Pro-reform activist Ibrahim Sharif — the only Sunni among the suspects — received five years in prison while other sentences ranged from two to 15 years. The sentences can be appealed.
Shiites comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but claim they face systematic discrimination such as being barred from top government and political posts.
Bahrain's rulers fears that any gains by Bahrain's Shiites could open new footholds for influence by Iran, a predominantly Shiite country. Bahrain also accuses Iranian-backed Hezbollah of having a role in the protests.
Shiite leaders in Bahrain repeatedly deny any ties to Iran and accuse leaders of using the fears of Iranian string-pulling to wage crackdowns that have included hundreds of arrests and purges from jobs and universities.
Bahrain's special security court has presided over a series of cases linked to the protests, including issuing two death sentences against men accused of killing police officers during the demonstrations.
Next week, a trial is scheduled to resume for more than 30 doctors and nurses accused of supporting the protests. Some of the medical personnel claim they were abused while in custody.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.