DUBAI (Reuters) - A prominent Bahraini opposition activist was sentenced to three years in jail on Thursday for anti-government protests, his lawyer said, a verdict that rights campaigners said showed the absence of political reform on the island.
Bahrain, the base of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests led by its Shi'ite Muslim majority erupted last year. Washington has called on its ally to talk to the opposition.
Nabeel Rajab is the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and has led many protests against the wide powers of the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty which rules the island kingdom.
A hero to protesters, but villain for those Bahrainis who fear the protests will bring Shi'ite Islamists to power, Rajab was already serving three months in jail over a tweet criticizing the prime minister. A court said it insulted Bahrainis.
The judge ruled in three cases on Thursday, all related to participating in peaceful protests, and handed Rajab a one-year jail sentence for each, said Mohammed al-Jishi, adding that he planned to appeal.
"It is a very stiff and unexpected ruling, I am surprised. They are peaceful protests, not violent ones," Jishi said.
Others found guilty in similar cases, Jishi said, had been sentenced to six months at most and some were freed on bail.
European Union foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton issued a statement expressing concern at the verdict for charges that she said were merely Rajab exercising his fundamental freedoms.
"The High Representative expects that this sentence in Mr Rajab's case will be reconsidered in the appeal process," it said. "Fair and impartial justice is a key requirement to overcome the current challenges in Bahrain."
The government's Information Affairs Authority said the charges against Rajab had been related to violence.
Public prosecutors had said Rajab's participation in marches and "provocation of his supporters" led to violence, including throwing petrol bombs and blocking roads.
"PRISONER OF CONSCIENCE"
Rights groups including Human Rights First, Front Line Defenders and Index on Censorship sharply criticized the ruling. Amnesty International said it was a "dark day for justice."
"Like many others in Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab is a prisoner of conscience, jailed solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly. He should be released immediately and his convictions and sentences quashed," said Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui in a statement.
"If anything, this latest verdict marks the end of the facade of reform in Bahrain."
There has been little progress towards opposition demands for reforms including a parliament with full powers to legislate and form governments. Many Shi'ites complain of political and economic marginalization, a charge the government denies.
Bahrain has increased parliament's powers of scrutiny over ministers and says it is reforming policing to conform with international rights standards.
While uprisings overthrew long-standing governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, Bahrain imposed martial law to try to crush the protests there last year.
Washington has urged Manama to hold a dialogue with the opposition to end the unrest and hold officials accountable for rights violations uncovered in an investigation led by international legal experts published in November.
But the United States values close ties with the ruling family, which allows Washington to run its Fifth Fleet operations out of Manama.
The fleet plays a key role in ensuring the free flow of oil in the Gulf at a time when Tehran has threatened to block vital shipping lanes nearby if the United States increases pressure over Iran's disputed nuclear program.
On Tuesday, a court delayed until September 4 a ruling in the retrial of 20 men convicted of leading the uprising, and since June the government has banned a series of protest rallies planned by leading opposition party Wefaq.
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal and Andrew Hammond; Editing by Jon Hemming and Robin Pomeroy)