MANAMA, Bahrain — A Bahrain appeals court Tuesday upheld jail sentences against 20 opposition figures convicted of allegedly plotting to overthrow the state, including eight prominent activists facing life in prison.
The group represents some of the most high-profile leaders of Bahrain's Shiite-led protest movement for a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Among the eight sentenced to life is rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who staged a 110-day hunger strike earlier this year in protest. The other 12 have lesser prison terms, ranging from five to 15 years, with seven of them convicted in absentia.
The decision also is likely to escalate street clashes that have occurred nearly nonstop since the Arab Spring-inspired uprising began 19 months ago. More than 50 people have been killed in Bahrain's 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, a member of the country's main Shiite political bloc Al Wefaq.
Shiites represent about 70 percent of Bahrain's more than 500,000 citizens, but claim 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 of 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 small changes in the charges were made in the hearings, said Jalil al-Aradi, one of the defense lawyers.
The 13 defendants held in Bahrain did not appear in court and family members were barred under tight security, al-Aradi said. The activists have previously claimed they suffered beatings and other abuses behind bars.
International rights groups have pressed Bahrain to free the group as a sign of outreach to opposition factions and efforts to ease criticism about the government's political crackdowns from key allies such as the U.S.
Brian Dooley, director of the Human Rights Defenders Program for Washington-based Human Rights First, described the court's decision as exposing the government's reform pledges as a "hoax."
"The pattern of repression continues in the courts and on the streets, and it's hard to see how the Bahrain government intends to make any progress on human rights," he said.
The official Bahrain News Agency said the charges include "plotting to overthrow the regime" and having "foreign intelligence contacts" — an apparent reference to Shiite power Iran. Bahraini leaders have accused Iran of having links to the protesters. Tehran has strongly criticized crackdowns against Shiites in Bahrain, but denies any active assistance.
The crisis in Bahrain has pushed Washington into a difficult corner. It seeks to keep it crucial security and political bonds with Bahrain's leaders, but has increasingly condemned the ongoing violence and urged the country's rulers to open wide-ranging talks with the opposition.
Bahrain also faces other internal showdowns over jailed activists, including rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab, who is appealing a three-year sentence for allegedly encouraging violence.
The State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by the verdict last month, and the European Union expressed "concern" with the sentence.