Top Shiite opposition leader Ali Salman has been convicted of inciting disobedience and hatred in the Sunni-dominated Bahrain, government officials said. Salman's arrest caused international condemnation late last year.
A Bahrain court sentenced Salman on Tuesday to a prison term of four years, for "disturbing the public peace and explicit incitement toward disobeying the law," according to the public prosecutor.
The 49-year old Shiite cleric has also been found guilty of "insulting an official body", for his remarks towards the country's interior ministry, another judicial source said.
At the same time, the court cleared Salman more serious allegation of seeking to overthrow the monarchy, the source added. This offense carries a potential life sentence in the small island kingdom.
Salman's opposition party, the al Wefaq Islamic Society, confirmed the Tuesday sentence on their Twitter page, saying that the regime was "pushing toward aggravation."
Salman can appeal the Tuesday verdict, his lawyer Abdullah al-Shamlawi said.
Home of the Fifth Fleet
The opposition leader was arrested in late December 2014, provoking criticism from both United States and the Shiite Iran, as well as human rights groups. The arrest also triggered protests across Bahrain.
The Gulf kingdom hosts US Fifth Fleet and plays an important strategic role in the sensitive region. It has been burdened by unrest since a 2011 Shiite uprising demanding a bigger role in the government. This uprising was stopped with military help from the regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia.
Despite alleged reforms following the unrest, government opponents claim that abuses continue. According to rights groups, at least 89 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since 2011, and hundreds more have been arrested and charged. Bahraini security forces have also been targeted by deadly bomb blasts.
'Prisoner of conscience'
On Monday, Amnesty International urged Bahrain to release Salman, calling him a "prisoner of conscience" and saying he had not received a fair trial.
The government rejected the claim, saying that "serious charges" against Salman were rightly regarded as a criminal.
"Ali Salman's case relates to criminal charges, specifically incitement of hatred, as well as inciting violence. The charges and subsequent trial are wholly unrelated to any political views the may hold," the government statement said in a Monday statement.
dj/jil (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)