A military court in Bahrain sentenced four Shiite protesters to death after convicting them on Thursday of killing two policemen during anti-government demonstrations last month, state media said.
Three other Shiite activists, who were also on trial, were sentenced to life in prison after they were convicted of playing a role in the policemen's deaths.
The verdicts _ which can be appealed _ were the first related to Bahrain's uprising. The kingdom's Shiite majority has long complained of discrimination and is campaigning for greater freedoms and equal rights in the tiny, Sunni-ruled island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bahraini human rights groups blasted the verdict and said the trial, conducted in secrecy, had no legal credibility and was politically motivated.
"This verdict is a message from the government, determined to stop the democracy movement," said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "It's a warning saying 'this is how we will treat you if you continue to demand your rights.'"
Faced with unprecedented political unrest, Bahrain's king declared martial law and invited troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf countries to help quell Shiite dissent after weeks of street marches and bloody clashes in the capital Manama. At least 30 people have died since Feb. 15, when the anti-government protests erupted. Four opposition supporters have also died in police custody.
For Sunni Arabs rulers around the Gulf, Bahrain is seen as a critical showdown with Shiite powerhouse Iran. Arab leaders fear that any serious political gains by Bahrain's Shiites _ about 70 percent of the population _ could open the door for greater influence by the Islamic Republic even though there is no history of close bonds between Iran and Bahraini Shiites.
Earlier this month, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council issued a strongly worded warning to Iran to stop "meddling" in their affairs. Bahrain this week expelled an Iranian diplomat.
Iran, in turn, has called the Saudi-led force an "occupation" and said it reserves the right to take further diplomatic action against Bahrain.
The seven opposition supporters sentenced Thursday were tried behind closed doors on charges of premeditated murder of government employees. In an earlier hearing this week, Bahrain state media said the military prosecutor presented evidence that showed the defendants killed the policemen intentionally by running them over with a car.
Their lawyers denied the charges.
International rights groups have expressed deep concern over the verdict that followed a trial of civilians in a military court, set up under emergency laws.
"This is very worrisome by the international standards for fair trials," said Malcolm Smart, a Middle East and North Africa director with Amnesty International.
The president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, denounced the death sentences and called the closed-door trial "deplorable."
Foreign media was barred from the courtroom, but selected representatives from state-aligned media were allowed. Family members of the defendants also attended the trial.
A relative of one of the defendants sentenced to death, said there were no emotional outbursts in the courtroom when the verdicts were read.
"He was smiling when they said it, because he did not want us to cry," the relative said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by the authorities and of jeopardizing the appeal.
A report by the Bahrain News Agency said the defendants had "all their legal rights" during the trial for what it called "one of the most gruesome murders in Bahrain."
The report carried links to government-produced videos posted on YouTube, including clips of purported confessions of alleged accomplices describing the policemen's killings. They also included testimonials from alleged relatives of one of the slain policemen and a taxi driver killed in the unrest. The footage refers to demonstrators as "gangs of outlaws" and "beasts without mercy."
Hundreds of protesters, opposition leaders and human rights activists and Shiite professionals such as doctors and lawyers have been detained since emergency rule was declared March 15. Earlier this month, the authorities banned media from covering legal proceedings in the country's military courts.
Bahrain rarely uses capital punishment, and when it does it is usually applied to foreigners. After a decade-long moratorium on the death penalty, three Bangladeshi citizens were put to death in 2006, according to Amnesty International.
Another Bangladeshi man was executed last July after being convicted of premeditated murder.