By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA (Reuters) - A Bahrain military court upheld life sentences on Wednesday against Shi'ite opposition leaders for organizing protests earlier this year that threatened the Sunni monarchy's grip on power, but Amnesty International called the trial a "sham."
The state news agency BNA said the eight men could still appeal the verdicts in the civilian Court of Cassation. They could be released via an amnesty from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
The national security appeals court, set up during a period of martial law that ended on May 31, sentenced eight of 21 men on trial to life in prison in June. One of those sentenced to life was tried in absentia because he lives abroad.
The 21 include the leader of the secular Waad party, Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim whose five-year sentence also was upheld, and blogger Ali Abdulemam, sentenced to 15 years and thought to be in hiding inside Bahrain.
The eight facing life imprisonment include rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and opposition leaders, among them Hassan Mushaimaa, who campaigned to turn Bahrain into a republic.
Riot police and youths from the island state's Shi'ite majority clash almost daily at protests calling for democratic reform in the villages outside the capital Manama.
The 21 were found guilty of charges including "forming a terrorist group to change the constitution and its monarchical system," collecting and donating money for these activities, inciting sectarian hatred, organizing unlicensed protests and collaborating with a foreign country, a reference to Iran.
Amnesty said the appeal hearing lasted five minutes. "After today's all-too-predictable outcome, it is high time for Bahrain's king ... to end this travesty once and for all," regional director Malcolm Smart said.
A Bahraini activist who did not wish to be named said the government was trying to win acceptance for use of military courts.
"This is an attempt to buy time, to wait and see if the authorities can get away with unfairly and harshly sentencing civilians before military courts," he said.
Families of the men say they have been tortured. Bahrain has set up a commission of international legal experts to investigate allegations of abuse during martial law which is due to announce its findings next month.
Amnesty said the commission does not cover the torture claims against the men accused of leading the uprising, calling the proceedings a "sham military trial."
A spokesman for the government's Information Affairs Authority said in a statement: "These defendants have been found guilty of very serious crimes, and they have not been sentenced as prisoners of conscience or for their participation in peaceful protests."
Opposition activists and many ordinary Bahrainis occupied a roundabout in Manama in February to demand democratic reforms.
Home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain crushed the protests in March after talks on political reform stalled, saying the demonstrators had Shi'ite sectarian aims and Iranian backing.
Saudi Arabia, fearing it would lose a Gulf ally to Iran, also sent in troops.
Shi'ites want political reforms that would give parliament legislative clout and remove a prime minister from the ruling Al Khalifa family who has occupied the post since 1971.
They also want jobs given back to many who were dismissed for taking part in the protests.
The government, which has been pressed by its ally Washington to talk to leading opposition party Wefaq, says it will allow parliament more powers to monitor cabinet ministers and that the ongoing clashes are holding up economic recovery.
No Wefaq figures are among the 21 convicted.
(Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Michael Roddy)