Bahrain's Lower National Safety Court sentenced 20 activists [BNA report] on Wednesdayeight to life in prisonfor anti-government protests conducted earlier this year. The convicted were charged [charges, PDF] with "plotting to topple the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain," but rights organizations have denied this, stating that all convicted were protesters exercising freedom of speech. The 20 protesters [profiles, PDF] are primarily prominent members of opposition and human rights organizations including the Movement of Liberties and Democracy, the Al-Wafa Islamic Movement, Bahraini National Committee for Martyrs and Victims of Torture, Bahrain Freedom Movement, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a blogger for Bahrainonline [advocacy websites]. Several clerics were also convicted. It is reported that five defendants were convicted in absentia [BYSHR report]. The convicted have 15 days to appeal.
The National Safety Courts, special military tribunals, were instituted in mid-March under King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa's [official profile] three-month state of emergency [JURIST report] and have been internationally criticized, most recently [JURIST report] by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. The court sentenced nine citizens [JURIST report] to 20 years in prison for kidnapping a police officer in May. In April, the court handed the death sentence to four protesters, a rarity in Bahrain, and upheld the sentences [JURIST reports] for two of the men, who were accused of murdering police officers. All of the charges levied in the National Safety Court have been disputed by Bahraini citizens and international rights organizations. In an effort to quiet protests that have been ongoing since March, last week, the Justice Ministry declared they would take action to lift the ban [JURIST report] on the leading opposition party, the National Democratic Action Society [website]. The leftist opposition party, known as Waad and aligned with the largest Shi'ite opposition group, was shut down in April during the pro-democracy protests [JURIST report].