Bahrain Shiite opposition leader sentenced to 4 years

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — A court in the Gulf Arab nation of Bahrain sentenced the country’s leading Shiite opposition figure to four years in prison on Tuesday.

Sheikh Ali Salman, a key figure in the 2011 uprising against the Sunni monarchy, was convicted of insulting the Interior Ministry, which oversees police, inciting others to break the law and inciting hatred against naturalized Sunni citizens, many of whom are of South Asian descent and serve as security officers tasked with quelling Shiite protests.

However, the higher criminal court found Salman not guilty of the most serious charge of inciting violence and calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, which carried a potential life sentence.

Salman, 49, is the secretary general of the al-Wefaq political opposition group and has been under arrest since late December. The charges against him stem from speeches he made between 2012 and 2014.

Al-Wefaq said in a statement ahead of the verdict that it reviewed the speeches and “could not find any evidence to support the charges.” The group said his words were taken out of context.

His defense lawyer, Abdullah al-Shamlawi, said Salman can appeal the verdict.

Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has over the past four years seen near-daily protests backed by the Shiite majority demanding a greater say in government.

Al-Wefaq is among the most vocal and organized opposition groups in the country. The group, which boycotted last year’s parliamentary elections, is demanding greater power-sharing between elected lawmakers and the monarchy, the release of political prisoners and a prime minister chosen by elected officials and not the king.

Salman’s case has attracted international attention, including criticism from Shiite powerhouse Iran. The EU warned that his arrest could jeopardize the already difficult security situation in Bahrain and the U.S. urged that he be tried in a just and transparent way.

The government accuses the opposition of repeatedly rejecting offers to hold a national dialogue.

By The Associated Press